Come the Revolution, one minor consequence may be an address by George Ryga to the Association of Canadian Publishers. “What you don’t understand,” Ryga will say, glancing grimly at publishing’s Old Boys gingerly trying out their first pair of prole overalls and surreptitiously pouring their Remy Martin from beer bottles, “is what the real people out there care about.”
If Ryga’s new novel is the measure it’s connin’, screwin’ and boozin’. The Revolution may yet be a Canada Council grant or two away, but in the meantime Ryga is, as he tells us in the novel’s preface, running away from “academic rubbish ... intellectual games, the smoothly turned phrases.” What he gives us instead is “barefaced,
gaunt reality” in the form of insights from Romeo Kuchmir, a pseudonym for a sometime wrestler and promoter Ryga met years ago when he worked on the night desk of a run-down transients’ hotel. Kuchmir is a decent enough chap, he doesn’t steal often, and he suffers only from a slight rearrangement of responses: actions normally emanating from the hearts and minds of people in Romeo’s case are hooked up to his prostate gland or kidneys.
In a way that’s a return to an earlier Ryga. As a young writer his macho stories might have fetched him a good price from A rgosy magazine, had he been able to hype them with a bit of the boy-scout prurience and the professional gloss mass circulation men’s mags require. Instead, he opted for a consciousness of social issues. That shut him out of the macho market for good, but opened a door to the subsidized theatre of protest from Vancouver to off-Broadway. The plays he wrote during this period ranged from the hard and powerful Indian to the sentimental, heavy-handed The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe. It was lapped up mainly oy the academics Ryga despised, since the real people seldom make the trip from the beer parlor to the auditorium.
With Night Desk Ryga returns from the ideological to the authentic. Whether or not there is much to be learned from Romeo Kuchmir there is no doubting his reality. He is 200-plus pounds of brawling, boasting piss ’n’ vinegar. His ego is big enough to take on life at every turn but not, it seems, to lick it. The elemental Kuchmir fills writer Ryga with absolute awe. Night Desk is the kind of book the film La Strada would have been, if Fellini had felt hero worship instead of sympathy and compassion for his brutal strongman The Great Zampano. BARBARA AMIEL
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