Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Playground by John Buell ~ 1976. This edition: Ballantine, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-345-25616-6-175. 185 pages.

Well, well. What have we here? Could it be a version of that standard Canadian theme-novel, the Man-Against-Wilderness saga?

Yes, indeed. And it’s a grand specimen of its kind.

Spencer (Spence) Morison, middle-aged professional man, exact occupation unspecified, is well-off, well-organized, fighting fit physically but emotionally more than ready for his meticulously well-planned two weeks holiday in the bush, exploring a bit, fishing a lot, and drinking good booze with three like-minded friends.

Spence leaves a day early, as the plan is that he will fly in a rented plan to the remote lake that the four have planned to base themselves at. He’s a qualified pilot, though that is not his official trade, and like everything else he undertakes he’s darned competent at flying, so a leisurely solo flight is not something he worries about.

Spence provides his flight plan, everything is loaded up, and off he goes. He’s got some time to spare, and it is a holiday, so he then does something which will prove to have serious implications. He detours to check out what the country farther north looks like. Over a hundred miles off his flight path, Spence runs into bad weather and takes his plane down on a large lake. Unfortunately he lands on a submerged shoal of rocks, holes his floats, and the plane goes down. Spence finds himself in the water a mile or more from shore. The struggle is on.

Heartbeat by heartbeat John Buell walks us along with his protagonist as he thinks his way through situation after situation: not drowning, getting to shore, taking stock of his very few assets, figuring out how to light a fire, making a shelter, finding food, locating himself in his surroundings and formulating a plan to head southwards, as it becomes apparent several days in that any search planes out there are not reaching his location.

Spence is a fascinating character. He is by nature so very, very sure of himself, but he realizes almost immediately that he is astoundingly out of his element. He is so well-organized in daily life, every contingency planned for, that he is thrown off kilter by having to truly think on his feet, and herein lies the true interest to me in this otherwise stereotypical Canlit tale, as Spence comes to terms with what he doesn’t know, and muddles through regardless.

He wondered what kind of evergreen it was, not pine, not balsam, not fir, they’re supposed to be big, there’s spruce and cedar and hemlock, only words for him, he knew the shape of his tree, the sprays and flattened leaves, and he’d recognize it. That and the plant with the little yellow flowers. For all his outdoorsman sports he didn’t know much about these things, there was always someone around to say that’s a such-and-such tree and the Indians made a medicinal tea from that plant, and it didn’t really matter, it was interesting and it sounded like a tour, nature had become a museum. And a playground. That’s what brought me out here. I’ll have to find out what those things are. I wonder who told the Indians. And how did they ever manage to boil tea?

Spence isn’t very good at living off the land. In the three weeks of his ordeal, he catches one fish and a handful of minnows, and clubs one small porcupine to death. The rest of the time he eats leaves of some unidentified species of plant – dandelionish but taller and more fleshy. He wishes he’d paid more attention to all the nature hints his previous fishing guides dropped in conversation, but he never really thought he’d need to, so that information was never retained in his well-organized brain.

As week three progresses, Spence gets weaker and weaker. He starts to hallucinate. He comes to terms with the idea of death, so foreign to him at this time in his life. He’d always assumed he had decades more to go. And at last he can’t get up any more. It’s all over.

Serendipity intervenes, which I was exceedingly happy about – as is Spence, obviously – because I had become quite attached to him and found myself utterly invested in his solitary goal of continuing to live.

The best thing about John Buell’s Playground is how it isn’t about a dramatic, hostile, violent life-and-death struggle of man against nature. Ignore all that crap on the cover blurbs. None of that happens.

The true and sobering kernel of truth which comes through loud and clear is that nature is utterly indifferent to the individual. It just is. It’s not out to hinder or to help. The individual is in charge of how he/she/it interacts with what is around, and sometimes the luck is on your side and sometimes it isn’t. This is essentially a non-dramatic drama. There are no struggles with predators or derring deeds done. Just a single human being, plucked out of his physical and psychological element, and doing the best he can with the resources at hand.

Great stuff.

My rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

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Beauty by Robin McKinley ~ 1978. This edition: Harper Collins, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-024149-0. 247 pages.

Robin McKinley’s first published novel, targeted at the pre-teen/teen readership of forty years ago.  (Can she really have been writing for that long? Golly!)

Surely we all know the outline of this fairytale:

  • rich shipping merchant loses his fleet in a storm
  • selfish children all except one daughter are peeved at new poverty
  • word comes that one of the merchant’s ships has survived
  • children all request rich gifts except good daughter who askes merely for rose
  • father, returning home without rose (it’s winter), is lost in blizzard and stumbles upon mysterious unpeopled castle where food and fire and yes, a blooming rose garden, appear by magic
  • father plucks rose and is confronted by horrific beast demanding penance
  • father trots home with rose and bad news and good daughter offers herself as sacrifice to beast to save father

Need I go on?

McKinley takes the traditional French fairy tale of La Belle et la Bête and twists it a little here and there to fit her own particular ethos – for example, the scenario in which the presumably doomed Beauty leaves behind a loving family flies in the face of the usual “selfish sisters” setup – but it is essentially the traditional story retold, with the additional romantic fillip of a triple wedding at the end (Beauty, her sister, and their widowed father all finding their One True Loves), plus horses.

Yes, horses.

Or, perhaps more accurately, one horse in particular, Beauty’s steed Greatheart, a massive warhorse stallion who was hand-raised by Beauty and thus imprinted on her to the point where he refuses to eat in her absence. He is noble, majestic, tireless, utterly obedient etcetera, and I am sure would affect the susceptible average thirteen year old reader like catnip affects a half-grown kitten. Pure intoxication.

This Beauty is a clever-sweet, trope-ridden novel. The heroine is the stock tomboy type who thinks she’s utterly homely – “Beauty” is a self-chosen (and eventually ironic) nickname because she doesn’t care for the stolid “Honour” which her mother christened her with – but of course she blossoms into loveliness just when it counts the most.  There is enough brooding romance to get the reader all warmed up, but nothing explicit enough to have it whisked away to the adult section of the library.

I first read Beauty a decade or so ago when I had my own pre-teen reader in residence. We shared the opinion that it was a nice enough story but a bit too perfectly peopled – there are zero villains, except for the nebulous non-human magician who works the original enchantment turning Man to Beast –  and even rather goopy here and there.

Nothing happened this time round to change my opinion.

Damning with faint praise? Yes, I suppose I am.

That said, it’s not that bad. Some parts are, in fact, excellent.

I would happily present this to a young reader, say between the ages of eleven and fifteenish, who is romantically inclined and fond of horses. And, much as I hate to use gender-based recommendations, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is likely to appeal the most to girls.

And of course to Robin McKinley fans of any age, and all those open to whiling away a few hours with a blatantly charming re-worked fairytale.

My rating: 7/10.

 

 

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The Twelfth Mile by E.G. Perrault ~ 1972. This edition: Doubleday, 1972. Hardcover. 256 pages.

Look what showed up in the just-past summer’s book pile.

Well, I have to admit I hadn’t exactly forgotten about it, as it was definitely a memorable read, albeit in the “so compellingly baddish you can’t look away” category.

Seems like Vancouver writer E.G. Perrault threw everything he had at this one. A number of great ideas for disaster scenarios are stacked up high, with the result that the sheer improbability of it all leads to a certain sort of morbid humour through sheer overexposure to multiple horrible things happening.

Here’s the premise.

A Canadian tugboat captain, experiencing marital woes, decides to avoid fighting with his wife by taking on a contract to haul an American oil drilling rig working just inside the Canadian twelve mile limit into safer waters to avoid an impending hurricane. Little do we know that Mother Nature (and Mother Russia) are preparing some nasty surprises for Captain Westholme and his crew.

From the back dust jacket of my first edition copy:

Christy Westholme only took the assignment to get away from his wife to think things over. It was an absolutely routine job. Take Haida Noble out of Vancouver a few miles to the big off-shore drilling rig and tow it back into port. Nothing to it, compared with some of the other towing jobs he and Haida Noble had done all over the Pacific .

Then the hurricane struck, then the tidal wave. Somehow Haida Noble survived; battered but still afloat, butting its way through mountainous seas toward the oil rig. But the rig had disappeared – in its place was a liferaft containing three Americans, one of them dead. And nearby was a strange crippled ship in imminent danger of being swept onto the rocky shore,

In the nick of time Westholme got a line aboard the strange ship and began to tow it into the nearest port. A routine salvage tow. But then he discovered that this was a Russian ship whose captain had orders not to be captured at any cost – even if the cost involved defying the Canadian Navy and Air Force, and a U.S. battleship, and taking the world to the brink of war.

Did you catch all that? It understates things.

Let me sum up our disasters:

  • #1 – industrial sabotage of a British-American drill rig by the Russians (fifty workers dead!)
  • #2 – hurricane
  • #3 – massive tidal wave wiping out communities from California to Alaska (hundreds, maybe thousands of civilians dead!)
  • #4 – hostile takeover of our hero’s tugboat by Russian spy ship (more dead people!)
  • #5 – eventual destruction of spy ship including self-immolation of quite likeable Russian captain and his dedicated ship’s doctor, the luscious Dr. Larissa Lebedovitch
  • #6 – international crisis triggered by Russian presence in Canadian waters bringing World War III ever closer

I think those are the “high” points.

What a depressing story. Death and destruction galore. Luckily the characters are so flat that we really can’t believe in them in any meaningful way, so when they fall by the wayside it’s really not that emotionally involving.

At least Captain Westholme and his wife get back together at the end, swearing to be nicer to each other in future. With so many people dead all around them and dozens of coastal communities in ruins, isn’t it nice that our hero and his newly adoring wife are bound for domestic bliss? Ha.

Rating this wanna-be Hammond Innes-style action-disaster novel is tough. I did read it through to the end, albeit with frequent strong urges to chuck it across the room in its stupider moments. Oh, and it was sexist, too. Though I let that pass because of the era-expectedness of the he-man commentary regarding the few, mostly offstage female characters – those whiny wives back home and the buxom female Russian sailors.

My husband tried to read this book and bailed out partway through, saying that even the unintended humour of unlikely disaster after unlikely disaster wasn’t worth the energy needed to slog through the novel’s head-hurting blend of stodgy writing and dramatic hyperbole.

Obviously my family is not the target audience for this novel, though it appears that it appealed to enough readers to cause it to go into multiple editions and several international translations.

I’ll have to give The Twelfth Mile a point for its local flavour, as it were. British Columbia coastal landmarks were well referenced throughout, adding a certain degree of interest, though post-fictional-tsunami a bunch of them were basically wiped off the map. A couple of points also for the sheer bravado of E.G. Perrault for putting forward such an over-the-top collection of overlapping dramatic episodes.

My rating: 3/10

A bit more on the author, because I feel bad about slamming this ambitious work so hard, when the writer was so obviously well-meaning.

He sounds like he was a really nice guy, and it’s probably unfair to judge him so harshly on the strength of this one novel, which means I’ll likely be keeping an eye out for his other titles as I go about my travels.

E.G. (Ernest George) Perrault was born in Penticton, B.C. and attended the University of British Columbia, graduating in 1948. According to an old UBC Alumni magazine, Perrault was one of the first students to attend one of Earle Birney’s creative writing classes.

Perrault had some success as a newspaper reporter, short story and screenplay writer. He also wrote several non-fiction books about B.C. industry and personalities. Three action/disaster novels show up bearing his name: The Kingdom Carver (1968, lumber barons in turn of the century BC : “He set out to conquer a fierce frontier… She, to tame a strong man’s angry heart”), The Twelfth Mile (1972), and Spoil! (1976, what looks like an oil derrick disaster).

Here is E.G. Perrault’s rather poignant obituary, lovingly written by his daughter Michelle at her father’s death in 2010.

I was interested to note that Perrault did indeed have firsthand knowledge of life at sea, serving on a submarine during World War II. And yes, the strongest sections of The Twelfth Mile were those involving the mechanics of operating a tugboat, and the storm sequences.

His story began Feb. 9, 1922, the oldest of four children. His father, Ernest Perrault, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1935, leaving his wife Flossie with nothing but a small pension and a strong determination to make her children the best they could be.

Ernie always advised and abided by the saying “follow your bliss.” For him, this meant writing. His first short story was published in the Vancouver Sun before he was 12, when he won a children’s writing contest.

This achievement sparked a career that spanned more than 70 years, leaving his family and fans a legacy of books, plays, documentaries, short stories, radio plays, musicals and poetry that will be treasured forever. His most recent book, Tong: The Story of Tong Louie, Vancouver’s Quiet Titan, was published in 2002 and won the BC Book Prizes Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize. Ernie continued to write, and recently had been working on a collection of short stories.

At 18, Ernie joined the Air Force and was stationed in Yarmouth, N.S., where, as a member of 160 Squadron, he was a navigator assigned to submarine patrol off the Atlantic coast.

Ernie used his veteran’s grant to go to the University of British Columbia, where he became president of the Radio Society and wrote for the campus newsletter. He earned a double degree in English and sociology, graduating in 1948. Together with his brother Ray, Ernie received the Great Trekker Award in 1987, bestowed upon UBC alumni who have distinguished themselves in their field.

Ernie found a way to connect with everyone he met. He could carry on equally fascinating conversations with academics, business leaders, toddlers or teenagers. While he was a man of the written word, above all, Ernie was a good listener. He drew people out, helping them to appreciate and share their own unique stories.

As a city boy, Ernie had little exposure to the outdoors until a local charity gave him the opportunity to go to camp when he was 13. This experience changed his life and instilled in him a deep appreciation for nature and the wonders of the outdoors. He camped, fished, hiked and hunted. He loved sharing these experiences, especially with his four children – Lisa, Larry, Michelle and Steve – and six grandchildren, who, along with countless others, attribute catching their first fish to Ernie’s patient guidance.

Like one of his awesome campfire stories, Ernie has left us wanting more.

Michelle Perrault is Ernie’s daughter.

 

 

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The Man from Greek and Roman by James Goldman ~ 1974. This edition: Random House, 1974. Hardcover. 215 pages.

I have a confession to make. If it weren’t for my latest Century of Books reading project, and the fact that this novel fit into an empty place on the list, I might not have made it through.

As it was, I did, and I ultimately found it reasonably amusing, but it’s not something I’m going to push forward with a “You must read this!” recommendation. In fact, it’s poised above the giveaway box, as I suspect one time through will quite enough for me.

That off my chest, I have to say that there were a lot of things to like about this lightweight novel. James Goldman can certainly write – his manner of stringing words together was a pleasure to encounter.

But The Man from Greek and Roman is a schizophrenic sort of novel, in that it skips from mood to mood much too frequently for this reader’s comfort. Was I reading a travel-adventure-action-romance spree? A tormented psychological drama? Light porn? The ending got really dark there for a bit, and then turned all sunshiny again. I am still confused. What was that all about?

Here’s the scenario.

Dr. Melvil West, middle-aged Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum, is going through a rough patch. He should be on top of the world, as his department has just acquired a priceless golden chalice – Roman, 1st Century B.C. – but for the fact that his wife Dido (yes, really) has announced that she is leaving him.

Side-swiped by his imminent de-spousing, our protagonist is all in a state of confused anguish largely because Dido, an avant garde artist, who remains in residence because her studio is attached to their apartment, starts bringing home her lovers and bedding them loudly with Melvil present. Awk-ward.

Then the phone starts ringing off the hook at work, for the golden goblet which came with a supposed ironclad provenance, proves to be perhaps not quite such a safe buy after all. Accusations of double-dealing and theft, emotional missives from dueling archaeologists, and skulkingly mysterious millionaires get into the picture, leaving Melvil so wrought up he does what any sensible museum curator would do.

Yes, he quietly goes to his safe, packs the chalice up in a brown paper parcel, walks out of the Met and into the airport, where he is astonished to find that people’s luggage is being gone through before they are allowed to board the plane. Those pesky hijackers and their bombs, you know. Melvil’s journey seems about to end before it’s truly started when he is rescued from his dilemma by a lovely young woman who has her own ideas about how best to get sensitive things on to and off of international air flights, and the romp is on.

For Melvil is on the track of the real story of the chalice, and the beautiful (and secretly tormented) Caroline becomes his mostly willing accomplice as they dodge reporters and policeman, zigzagging across England and France, and ending up in Corsica, where the jig appears to be up, with Melvil tagged as an eccentric thief and cornered by a B-movie’s worth of detectives and bumbling European cops.

Season all of this with sporadic episodes of Melvil having sexual fantasies about Caroline, and vice versa, and their eventual fulfillment of the same and you have – well – I’m not quite sure where to shelve this rather odd novel.

It wasn’t awful by a long shot – parts of it were downright excellent, in particular the travelling sequences, and the cynical-humorous depictions of various artist-scholar types – but it was hard going during the semi-graphic sex scenes, and when it delved into the troubled places of the two main characters’ back histories. It seems to me to be a novel with an identity crisis of sorts, and I can’t imagine having the patience to tackle it ever again.

As a period piece of the decadent 1970s art-and-money scene it succeeds, and for that I will give it fair due: 5/10. Though it’s not to be a keeper, I’m afraid.

 

 

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Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent (pseudonym of Peter O’Donnell) ~ 1975. This edition: Doubleday, 1975. Alternate title: Kirkby’s Changeling. Hardcover. 310 pages.

I am finally beset by the virus that’s been going around for months here – it’s almost a relief to be ill at last, as everyone else seems to have had it or is in the middle of it, and I was thinking my apparent immunity was a bit too good to be true – and my reading luck is also at rather a low ebb.

I have three finished novels stacked up to share some thoughts on. They are all very different – this one, and The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman (intriguing title, no?), and The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes. All of them were quite entertaining in parts, though none attained perfection. With that in mind, let’s see what my foggy brain can find to say. I’ll start with Stranger at Wildings, while its finer points are still fresh in my memory.

From the front flyleaf:

Here is a tale of charm and adventure – set in Europe around the turn of the century – whose colorful action ranges from a touring circus in Hungary to the fox-hunting society of the English countryside to the elegant circles of wealth and fashion in London. It is the story of a spirited young woman of eighteen who has left an unhappy, uncertain past in England and made a new life for herself as a trapeze artist in a small touring circus…But that forgotten past will stumble upon her one day, beside a stream in Hungary, where the circus has pitched its tents for a time. It will come in the form of a mysterious young man – handsome, appealing, yet curiously remote – whose appearance is the beginning of a strange, dangerous intrigue that involves deception, romance, disappearance and, in the end, the revelations of a family’s darkest secrets.

Yes, it’s a gothic romance!

Written – anomaly alert! – by a man. The only man, in fact, to have ever won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in 1978, for his novel Merlin’s Keep.

Though to be fair, no one at the time except his publisher (and presumably his nearest and dearest) knew that “Madeleine” was actually “Peter”. For some reason I get a lot of quiet amusement from knowing this, and I read this novel with enhanced enjoyment because of it, in particular during the more “girly” bits, where Mr. O’Donnell finds himself forced to describe articles of womanly attire. He does quite well, for a while. I did notice towards the end that he rather lost interest in playing that particular game, merely stolidly stating that a character’s dress was, say, blue, no other details of style or shade or fabric or embellishments given.

The whole scenario is decidedly unlikely, but a good romp it makes, and I liked it a lot until the last chapter or two, when the requisite happy ending was being set up. Yeck. This is where someone like Norah Lofts trumps others in the genre, with her carefree tendency to keep things dark; no happily-ever-afters there. But I digress.

Okay, here it is. A thirteen-year-old, motherless English girl, spoiled and unlikable, finds out upon the death of her supposed father that she is in fact no relation at all – she was a changeling child. She is therefore told that she is to be put into an orphan asylum, as no one wants to continue supporting her.

So she runs away, and joins a circus, where she becomes a talented trapeze artist. (Yes, seriously.)

Fast forward a few years. Our heroine, Chantal, is now eighteen, and has decided that she wants to become a medical doctor, once she has banked enough money from her acrobat’s salary to put herself through medical school. (This is not such an easy feat for a young woman in the late 1800s to pull off, remember.)

In Hungary, where the circus is touring, Chantal befriends a handsome young man who has apparently lost his memory. Their eyes meet, etcetera, but before anything comes of it the young man disappears under suspicious circumstances. Hot on the heels of this drama, Chantal is “discovered” by an English brother and sister couple (but are they?) who inform her of her real heritage, and off she is whisked to England, to a high place in society.

But Chantal soon realizes that someone is out to harm – kill? – her, and lo and behold! – the mysterious man from Hungary reappears, memory apparently repaired…

There is a killer dog attack, lots of acrobatic antics, various horseback athletics (Chantal is a talented equestrienne, of course), a sinister secret society, and a grand finale which I must admit I didn’t see coming, save for the inevitable romantic clinch at the end.

Points in favour include a divertingly fast pace, and a heroine with numerous personality flaws to contrast nicely with her enviable physical accomplishments. Points against are the sincerely silly plot, and the goopy ending.

But all in all a rather decent example of the genre. Let’s give the man (Peter) a round of applause, and a well-deserved 7/10.

I’d made acquaintance with Madeleine-Peter before, and I wrote about it, too. At length.  Here we go.

A bit of an extra from the back dust jacket:

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The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays by Mordecai Richler ~ 1978. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1978. New Canadian Library # 152. Selected and Introduced by Robert Fulford. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9268-7. 194 pages.

I haven’t been reading much this last while, as I’m rather deeply involved with our regional performing arts festival which had its first session this past week, and when the various disciplines are running there isn’t much down time for the organizing team.

It’s taken me that whole week to get through this slim volume of essays, and some of what I read is a tad bit blurred around the edges because of how tired I was whenever I managed to sneak a few pages in, but I must say that it was, overall, an engrossing read. All of these essays are very good; some are superlative.

The essays were written by Richler between 1961 and 1971, first appearing in various periodicals, and then being among others collected into two compilations: Hunting Tigers Under Glass ( 1968), and Shovelling Trouble (1972). This collection is therefore a gleaning of the best of two other collections, and the standard is expectedly high.

If there is any sort of a uniting thread running through these varied musings, it is that of Jewishness. Mordecai Richler in his fiction writing – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz et al – was a great examiner of what it meant to be Jewish, and more specifically, to be Jewish in Canada.

Richler’s essays in some ways reach farther than his novels did, in their range and subject matter, but they remain intimately connected to the writer’s cultural roots, and this accounts for a great degree of their humour and their poignancy.

Maple Leaf Culture Time (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1967): A brief introductory essay on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial in 1967.

Today we are well into the sweeter hour of Canadian romance, maple leaf culture time, an era at once embarrassingly grandiose, yet charged with promise. We are smitten with an unseemingly hasty tendency to count and codify, issuing definitive anthologies of 100 years of poetry and prose and fat literary anthologies, as if by cataloguing we can make it real…

“Êtes-vous canadien?” (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1969): On receiving the Governor-General’s award for literature in 1969, Richler muses on many things, ranging from the office of the Governor-General itself (the Queen’s representative in Canada, for those not in the loop), the perennial French-English divide, and how to best balance ethical trueness-to-one’s-art with the very human wish to bask in the spotlight of receiving a major (if possibly flawed) national literary award. Leonard Cohen and compatriots are referenced, with Richler’s eyebrow quirkily raised.

Bond (first appeared in Commentary, 1968): This essay alone is worth the price of the book. Mordecai Richler, father of young sons, is appalled (loudly) by the current popularity (in 1968) of the suave Mr. Bond, and a scathing examination of the fictional hero himself and, more to the point, Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, follows. The gist of the thing is that Richler asserts that Ian Fleming was fundamentally anti-Semitic, and that his fictional alter-ego exhibits extreme bigotry of various sorts. Did I say “scathing”? Yes, indeed. And also thought-provoking, and very funny. Agree or disagree, I suspect you will never look at Bond (or Fleming) the same again.

A Sense of the Ridiculous (first appeared in the New American Review, 1968): An aging Richler (forty looms!) muses on the hungry generation following his, and the reluctant transition between being a striving young writer, and one who is “expected to deliver”. A slightly melancholy, wryly humorous, and ultimately rather charming revisitation of the life-changing Parisian episode of Richler’s youthful days.

Why I Write (first appeared in Works in Progress, 1971): More looking back, and another wonderfully composed snippet of autobiography and writerly self-analysis.

As I write, October 1970, I have just finished a novel of intimidating length, a fiction begun five years ago, on the other side of the moon, so I am, understandably enough, concerned by the state of the novel in general. Is it dead? Dead again. Like God or MGM. Father McLuhan says so (writing, ‘The Age of Writing has passed’) and Dylan Thomas’s daughter recently pronounced stingingly from Rome, “Nobody reads novels any more.”

I’m soon going to be forty. Too old to learn how to teach. Or play the guitar. Stuck, like the blacksmith, with the only craft I know. But brooding about the novel, and its present unmodishness, it’s not the established practitioner I’m grieving for, it’s the novice, the otherwise effervescent young man stricken with the wasting disease whose earliest symptom is the first novel. These are far from halcyon days for the fledgling novelist…

O Canada: An essay on the arts, on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial.

At the time [1954], it seemed to many observers, myself included, that the country was starved for culture, and nothing could be worse. How foolish we were. For now [1967] that the country is culture-crazed and more preoccupied than ever before with its own absence of a navel, how one longs for Canada’s engaging buckeye suspicion of art and artists of not long ago. I was brought up in a folksy Canada. I remember the bad old days when it was necessary to come to the defense of artistic youngsters, and we suffered a weave of enlightened CBC radio and TV plays which educated the public to the fact that we were not all notoriously heavy drinkers, like William Faulkner, or queers, like Jean Genet. We strung words together sort of, but we were regular fellers: Canadians. In a typical play a sensitive little twerp named David or Christopher, usually son of a boorish insurance agent, roused his dad’s ire because he wouldn’t play hockey or hit back. Instead he was studying piano with an effeminate Frenchman or painting with a tricksy Hungarian Jew (“A piece of blank paper! Mit a brush und paints, vot an opportunity for beauty!”) and in the end made dad eat his words by winning the piano competition in Toronto or, if the writer was inclined to irony, by being commissioned to paint a mural for the new skyscraper being built by the insurance company dad worked for…

Expo 67: More of the same – the arts in Canada circa the Centennial – with a bonus on-the-ground visit to Expo itself.

The Great Comic Book Heroes: Mordecai Richler delves into the wonderfully strange world of the comic book heroes of his youth. Another 5-star essay in this collection.

The Batman and Robin, the unsparing Dr. Wertham [author of Seduction of the Innocent, a passionately negative critique of the comic book genre] wrote, were also kinky. “Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters with beautiful flowers in large vases …. It is like the wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Unfortunately I cannot personally vouch for the sexual proclivities of ‘socialites’, but I don’t see anything necessarily homosexual in “beautiful flowers in large vases.” This strikes me as witch-hunting. Sexual McCarthyism. Unless the aforesaid flowers were pansies, which would, I admit, just about clinch the good doctor’s case. As, however, he does not specify pansies, we may reasonably assume they were another variety of flora. If so, what? Satyric rambling roses? Jewy yellow daffodils? Droopy impotent peonies? Communist-front orchids? More evidence, please…

Writing for the Movies: On the soul-destroying occupation of writing for the silver screen.

Once, it was ruled that any serious novelist or playwright who tried his hand at film-writing was a sellout. Indeed, many a novelist-turned-screenwriter next proffered a self-justifying, lid-lifting novel about Hollywood, wherein the most masculine stars were surreptitiously (not to say gratifyingly) queer, the most glamorous girls were empty inside, deep inside, but lo and behold, the writer, on the last page, had left the dream palace, fresh winds rippling through his untamed hair, to write the book-of-the-month you had just finished reading. Later, the novelist returns to Hollywood, but on his own terms, to do the screenplay of his novel. It was filmed frankly, outspokenly, and everybody felt better inside, deep inside…

The Catskills (first appeared in Holiday, 1965): Recreation, upper class Jewish style, in the lavish mid-century resorts of New York’s Catskill Mountains.

This Year in Jerusalem (first appeared in Maclean’s, 1961): The most serious essay in this compilation, and much the most pertinent to present-day current affairs, as Richler visits Israel and reports on its aggressive optimism, its bitter origins, its deep cultural divides (Jewish/Palestinian, Old World/New World/African Jew, rural kibbutznick/urban dweller), and some of the more surreal aspects of “development” in the old-new Hebraic homeland.

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My personal rating for the collection as a whole: a strong 8/10.

 

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Saint Jack by Paul Theroux ~ 1973. This edition: Penguin, 1997. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004157-5. 223 pages.

It [to be successful] was my yearning, though success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. If the rich were correct, I reasoned, what choice had they made? Really, was disappointment virtue and comfort vice and poverty like a medicine that was good because it stung? The President of the United States, in a sense the king of the world, said he had the loneliest job on earth; where did that leave a feller like me?

The theatrically convulsed agony of the successful is the failure’s single comfort. ‘Look how similar we are,’ both will exclaim: ‘We’re each lonely!’ But one is rich, he can choose his poison. So strictly off my own bat I gave myself a chance to choose – I would take the tycoon’s agony and forgo the salesman’s. I said I wanted to be rich, famous if possible, drink myself silly and sleep till noon. I might have put it more tactfully: I wanted the wealth to make a free choice. I was not pleading to be irresponsible; if I was rich and vicious I would have to accept blame…

Jack Flowers, failed one-time hippy and now moderately successful ship chandler’s assistant and rather more successful supplier-of-the-six-sexual-desires to sailors, servicemen and tourists visiting Singapore, receives a chilling intimation of mortality when a chance acquaintance of the same age collapses and dies in the bar where Jack has been drinking (mostly but not always after working hours) for the last fifteen years.

Makes a feller think, you know.

And then inspires said feller to write down the story of his life-so-far.

Jack Flowers was born John Fiori, son of Italian immigrants in Boston, and how he ends up in Singapore, living his shadow life as handler of a bevy of willing (that’s the story and he’s sticking to it) Asian prostitutes, is the bare bones of this tale.

Well, Jack has had a lot of cash pass through his hands, but he’s never attained wealthy, though he’s being quite serious when he says he wants to be, and he’s not vicious either, which has a great deal to do with why riches have eluded him.

The self-portrait that emerges (always bearing in mind that the most unreliable narrator can often be the one focussed mainly on himself) is of a basically good man, doing the best he can in the situation he has found himself in. The pimp with a heart of gold, in fact, to turn the cliché upside down.

When Theroux is on his game he writes like a veritable angel. A fallen angel, perhaps, with sooty wings and smutty face, but nonetheless an angel. Saint Jack shows him to be very much on his game. (Pun fully intended.)

This early novel is a sardonically happy thing, and I found myself utterly on the narrator’s side throughout.

Did I say how funny I found this novel? It’s very funny. Especially the tale of the cursed tattoos. (Or maybe better described as tattooed curses.) Anyway, good stuff.

The writer being Paul Theroux, and Saint Jack being concerned with prostitution (though not just with prostitution) you would be correct in assuming that there is a lot about sex in this one. Don’t let that put you off.

10/10.

Oh, yes. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The novel was made into a movie in 1979,  surreptitiously shot on location despite the refusal of the Singaporean officials to give permission and permits. The movie was subsequently banned in Singapore between 1980 and 2006, because of its unflattering depiction of the “bad old days” underbelly of Singapore’s notorious street life, at a time when the civic image-scrubbers were trying to clean things up.

Kind of makes you want to find a copy and watch it, doesn’t it? Just because.

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