Any Port in a Shitstorm

By Rudi Kraeher May 5, 2014

Any Port in a Shitstorm

The Dicshitnary by John Dunsworth

SHITAPILLARS, shitmoths, and all other manner of “shitisms” run amok in John Dunsworth’s book, The Dicshitnary. This compendium of “scatological eloquence” — fecal philosophy mixed with irreverent cultural references — takes Shakespeare and Coleridge down from their lofty shelves and sets them in a place of honor beside the porcelain throne, offering a fragrant reimagining of classic verse and cultural insight. With a playful appropriation of language and context, the book turns the Grecian Urn into the Grecian Urine, at times putting direct quotes from various intellectual luminaries at the service of Dunsworth’s “ontology disguised as scatology” (e.g., Bertrand Russell’s comment that “Every man is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day”). Dunsworth’s body of fecal metaphors (or shitisms) is not without prestigious literary precedent, and the lettered company he keeps is formidable; as a result, he invites us to rethink both the philosophical and conversational usefulness of excremental metaphors, in their myriad forms.

First published in 2011, The Dicshitnary is available to purchase both as a “real book (physical made of paper and shit)” as well as in ebook form from the author’s website. The small hardback features golden embossed lettering on the cover, accompanied by an image of a steaming pile of poop. John Dunsworth is popularly known as Jim Lahey, the dipsomaniacal park supervisor of the cult Canadian comedy series Trailer Park Boys. Written in collaboration with Ryan Cameron (who also provided the layout, book design, and flippant illustrations), The Dicshitnary represents a valuable contribution to the quickly overflowing media constellation of Trailer Park Boys–related releases, including a brand-new season of the series and a feature-length film.

After a brief hiatus, the show will be returning this fall with season eight, featuring 10 new episodes streaming exclusively on Netflix. In addition to the new season, Netflix will debut three specials — “Community Service Special,” “Swearnet Special,” and “Trailer Park Boys Xmas” — as well as a feature film, Trailer Park Boys 3: Don’t Legalize It, just released in Canada on April 18, in time for the stoner’s holy day of 4/20. On top of that, the three stars of the show — Robb Wells, Mike Smith, and John Paul Tremblay — have also decided to start their own uncensored online network called Swearnet, which will come into profane service after their theatrical releases this year.

Trailer Park Boys is a mockumentary in which Dunsworth’s character’s penchant for shit talk sets the show’s tone of charming irreverence. Set in the Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Nova Scotia — a community of semi-legit businesses and oddly eternal summer — TPB follows the ill-conceived get-rich-quick schemes of three friends, Ricky (Robb Wells), Bubbles (Mike Smith), and Julian (John Paul Tremblay). The series is structured around the boys going in and out of jail as a result of their dope- and booze-fueled plans to grow and sell weed, “remarket” stolen barbecues, and open up the “Kittyland Love Center” — a daycare for cats.

The TV series has won multiple Gemini awards in Canada, including Best Comedy Series (2004) and Best Ensemble Performance in a Comedy Series (2005), and has enjoyed continued success through a variety of touring comedy shows by Dunsworth and other members of the cast. Part of the appeal of the series is its meticulously detailed social environment, populated by an assortment of eclectic personalities, each with his or her own character gimmick. For example, throughout the entire series, with one or two brief exceptions, Julian is never seen without a brimming glass of rum and coke — even renovating trailers and robbing banks with drink in hand. The show’s narratives often turn on painfully amusing ironies, moving from subtle moments and small laughs at malapropisms and poorly planned delinquency to operatic explosions of emotion. Much of this comedic flair derives from the tension between Ricky’s and Julian’s criminal incompetence and Jim Lahey’s inebriated ineptitude.

The show’s enduring popularity is undoubtedly due to the way the seemingly crass subject matter of guns and blunts and scatology belies a highly conscious formal and linguistic playfulness, whose mockumentary aesthetic and dynamic wordplay reward repeated viewings. Lahey offers an economy of expression that is perfectly suited for the sordid world of high-definition “piss jugs,” “rub n’ tizzugs,” and greasy trailer-park-girls-gone-wild videos. Dunsworth himself brings his Shakespearean training to bear on the show — including a masterful drunken recitation of King Lear in a home video, filmed by Lahey’s perpetually shirtless assistant supervisor and occasional lover, Randy. Lahey, as Dunsworth plays him, is a power-mad Rabelaisian egomaniac, often given to brilliant physical slapstick but who is nonetheless an intricately self-tortured and tragic figure. Madly in love with Randy, whom he continually alienates with his progressively wilder binges, Lahey is vindictively bent on sending Ricky, Bubbles, and Julian back to “con college.” Paradoxically, his most inspired successes — as well as his most painfully abject failures — arise when he simply “lets the liquor do the thinkin.’”

When sanitized clichés do not seem appropriate for a ludicrous and obscene modern world, The Dicshitnary provides helpful and humorous alternatives. Dunsworth’s book highlights the series’s techniques of literate idiocy by extending his character’s preferred mode of wordplay to offer the reader and fan an invaluable resource for “talking shit.”

Most of the entries in The Dicshitnary are open-form compounds that somehow incorporate the word. It includes a four-page multilingual catalog of terms for excrement and an endless variety of “shitisms” — such as the Nietzschean “shit abyss,” poems, quotes, and parodic drawings (e.g., Lady “Gag” and The Great Wave [of floaters] off Kanagawa), including an extended definition of the “post post-modern artistic movement” of “shit xylography”: “the latest abstract expressionistic bastard child of the Da Da Simplists in which disciples of Jerkson Peelick fling fecal matter at shitographic iconography, producing such art treasures as Moses and Shit Mountain, Shitler’s Mother, and Turd Descending a Staircase.” The book provides scatological scholars and potty humorists alike with a cheeky assortment of concepts and terms that collectively create a unique world (a “shitopia”) and a vocabulary with which to articulate it. Dunsworth’s “scatology as ontology with a philological pretense” invites the reader to imagine herself not so much within that imaginary world — populated by shit leopards and shit lemmings — as in our own, armed with a dirty discourse to mock it.

In The Dicshitnary, no subject or individual is safe from Dunsworth’s equal-opportunity excremental parody. Religion, literature, popular culture, and politics are all fair game. In a carnivalesque lowering of the high, the ideal, and the abstract, the book levels all manner of spiritual discourse to the realm of the earthly and bodily. “Transcendentshitalism,” Buddhism, Scientology, and the biblical exegesis of Job’s “shit luck” are all leveled by scatology. The book’s burlesque of pretension and super-seriousness is consistently mischievous yet light in tone — this is a humorous text that avoids aggressive mockery.

The Dicshitnary is a play on the dictionary form itself, organized alphabetically and complete with parts of speech, parodic Latin etymologies, alternative definitions, and examples from various works of “shiterature.” The text is as self-referential as any proper dictionary, referring the reader to other entries for further clarification. It implicitly evokes the television series through allusions to its characters, the many semiliterate social misfits who make use of this “shitscourse” to describe their milieu, especially Ricky, who is the source of a uniquely Sunnyvale lexicon. His malapropisms and “eggcorns” are referred to by fans as Rickyisms, and are the product of a dim, cannabis-saturated intellect that has its moments of improvisational and criminal brilliance. Ricky lectures children about “supply and command” and “survival of the fitness,” all the while trying to avoid the “worst case Ontario.” Lahey’s own cautionary metaphors are perfectly suited for this fondly caricatured version of an uneducated and illicit trailer-park life, sustained by small business ventures such as Garbageland/Ricky’s Used Shit, Cory and Trevor’s Convenients Store, and the Dirty Burger food truck. In their insular and disenfranchised world, the characters maintain a mutual (if at times conflicted) affection for each other, and loyalty to friends and family remains an enduring tenet for the Sunnyvale residents.

As Mikhail Bakhtin reminded us in his seminal study of the grotesque and the carnivalesque, Rabelais asks, “What the devil is this? Do you call this ordure, ejection, excrement, evacuation, dejecta, fecal matter, egesta, copros, scatos, dung, crap, turds? Not at all, not at all: it is but the fruit of the shittim tree.” Joyce was a notorious dirty letter-writer, hoping that Nora would “let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.” Pynchon and de Sade have both indulged in detailed descriptions of coprophagia, while Bataille wielded shit as a Surrealist mode of explosive resistance to rationalism and idealism. Even Mozart wrote scatty bedtime rhymes to his cousin: “I now wish you a good night, shit in your bed with all your might.”

Wary readers should not be fooled or put off by all the shit-talk: The Dicshitnary was assembled by an erudite comedian with a broad range of satirical targets. It holds very little sacred, encouraging us to laugh at ourselves with naughty pastiche and to resist lethal seriousness. Fitting in somewhere between Aristophanes and Samuel Delany, Dunsworth has made an oddly dignified contribution to literary scatology.


Rudi Kraeher is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Riverside.

LARB Contributor

Rudi Kraeher is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Riverside, where he works on contemporary U.S. and Latin American literature, popular music and culture, and film. 


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