In the early ’70s, Canadian literary presses were flourishing. Dozens of these small, ambitious companies were digging up new talent and—with mixed emotions—serving as a farm system for larger, more established firms. Many well-known writers, from Margaret Atwood to Matt Cohen, made their debuts under idiosyncratic imprints such as Contact, Anansi and Sono Nis. Once proven, they were
snatched up by such big-gun publishers as McClelland and Stewart and Oxford, who could give them the wider exposure they deserved.
Today the ability of the small presses to continue publishing unknown writers is in jeopardy. According to several members of the Literary Press Group, sales are plummeting to pre-1967 levels. Ann Wall of the House of Anansi cites several reasons for the decline: a tendency in economically tough times for people to buy more escapist fiction and how-to books; certain inequitable government subsidies; and the failure of major newspapers and magazines to review small-press publications. Al-
though the future for many of the literary presses may be grim, the quality of recent small-press publications remains generally high, especially in fiction.
One author who seems particularly ripe for discovery by a larger national audience is George McWhirter, an expatriate Irishman living in Vancouver. His third collection of short stories, Coming to Grips with Lucy (Oberon, $8.95 paper, $17.95 hard-cover), braves with wit and pathos some of life’s most poignant moments. The stories are divided between Irish and Canadian characters, with the Irish tales generally livelier and more resonant. The best feature boys in the twilight of childhood; McWhirter translates their welter of emotions with sympathy and dignity.
The wonderful title story is one of these. Here, the young narrator—a decorous lad keen on golf—meets up with the capable and irrepressible Lucy, the local greenskeeper. Lucy lives with her father, her brother and a herd of headstrong goats smack in the middle of the golf course. Into their rough-and-tumble midst stumble the young boy and his sister. She is attracted by Lucy’s wild, motorcycling brother; he, by the sensual call of the rustic older woman: “It seemed impudent, impertinent to think of Lucy with a fella. I didn’t think of trees with fellas, boulders with fellas . . . . ” The two brother/sister pairs form the four corners of a graceful monument to sexual and sibling love.
Even in the most melancholic of his tales, McWhirter writes with a moral perspicacity that redeems the sorrow he evokes. His style, too, is exhilarating, which comes as no surprise since McWhirter is also an acclaimed poet. He shows a connoisseur’s taste for sensuous detail and an uncanny capacity for metaphor, locking together the strange and the commonplace in vivid, unexpected comparison: “ . . . the sideroads, coiling away toward the lakes, like corkscrews into bottles of clear white wine.”
Susan Swan’s excellent, fast-paced collection, Unfit for Paradise (Christopher Dingle Editions, $5.95), is as far removed from McWhirter’s poetic richness as spring water is from a full-
bodied Burgundy. Set against the languorous backdrop of tropical resorts, these 10 stories follow a variety of North Americans south in search of sun, sex and Eden. What these tourists can’t leave behind, however, is the blundering myopia of their speedy, monied culture. Toronto writer Swan gleaned the kernel of each tale by talking to other travellers about their misadventures in paradise; the first-person fictions she has crafted amount to studies in the politics of privilege.
The Sunshine Girl and the Shah is typical. In five swift pages Swan dreams up an average Canadian housewife enjoying a clean-living week on Paradise Island at the same time the exiled shah of Iran has taken refuge there. Repeated sightings of the shah and his family punctuate her mindless dedication to a perfect suntan, and she carries away a final image of “me reading a book to get away from the swingles games at Club Med and the Shah and his children strolling the beach with their bodyguards.” But there’s never any certainty that she understands the incongruity of bodyguards in paradise. Here, as elsewhere
in the book, the light dawns more on the reader than the characters.
In these sparely told stories—there are barely a half-dozen stabs at imagery in the entire book—Swan subjugates stylistic flourishes to the almost documentary perceptions of her characters. Her writing approaches reportage, except that she grasps the power of implication, intimating rather than stating the obtuseness of her wandering gringos. It is this ability, as well as a gift for sudden, turnabout endings, that gives a quiet force to Swan’s stories.
While the works of McWhirter and Swan are “literary” in the purest sense, William Goede, an expatriate American living in British Columbia, has written a cowboy western, albeit a very stylish one. His first novel Quantrill (Quadrant, $7.95) recreates the adventures of Charley Quantrill, leader of Confederate irregulars during the U.S. Civil War. Quantrill’s mounted guerrillas hide out in the wooded ravines, ambushingUnion cavalry and burning the homesteads of Union sympathizers. Such tactics are matched perfectly by the novel’s galloping, what-happens-next pace, though Quantrill has highbrowed aspirations as well. Its smoothly crafted sentences lift it several cuts above the average western, as does the characterization of its leading man.
Charley Quantrill is the traditional cowboy loner fleshed out with the richer dimensions of the modern existential hero. Like Yeats’s Irish Airman, those he fights he does not hate, those he defends he does not love. A genuine mystery, he keeps you guessing at the dark mainsprings of his motives.
But when Charley opens his mouth, a lot of his mystery—and credibilityvanishes. The person most responsible for making him talk is Kate, his hardriding. 15-year-old girlfriend, and unfortunately their dialogue has all the stylized arch-toughness of a Bogart and Bacall routine: they sound more cute than real. Indeed, a great deal of everyone's dialogue in Quantrill echoes Hollywood at its stereotypical worst, dragging the novel away from the precincts of literature into the more raffish neighborhood of entertainment.
No matter. As entertainment the novel is, for the most part, superb. Quantrill and his gang are constantly extracting themselves from impossible situations. Such Zorro-like escapades are just what we need sometimes to counterbalance the weight of our despair with the daydreams of immortality.
Danger—not from bullets but from swirling white water—is the subject of the title story in Douglas H. Glover’s The Mad River (Black Moss, $5.95). Glover, who lives in Waterford, Ont., likes to begin his tales in medias res
with the tension stretched tighter than a countertenor’s vocal chords: “Hunter sculls tentatively at the brink of the chute, scanning for order in the spumewhite chaos below.” Hunter is storming the treacherous Mad River, accompanied by two old friends, expert kayakers like himself. As they provoke each other to feats of daredevilry, exhaustion drives them closer to disaster.
This story pulses with a virtue that animates most of the book: a compact, highly poetic style with an urgency approaching hysteria. The wonder is that Glover can keep his head in the midst of
such a verbal stampede, yet he manages with impressive coolness and accuracy to describe the intricacies of physical phenomena, whether it be the flux of water or those tiny human gestures that reveal whole worlds of emotion.
On balance, though, these virtues are not enough to save him from some chronic faults. He almost always ends his stories badly, by being too vague or by overwriting. In the title story he does both. When it is crucial to know exactly what has happened to Hunter as he shoots the final rapids, our vision is blurred by a froth of bad poetry. Even
more frustrating is Glover’s tendency to indulge in philosophical truisms: “This is the moment of the great un-caring that all men seek and few find.” Such pompous sentimentality crops up far too often in The Mad River, like a boorish guest at a party which was otherwise quite tolerable.
A far more tasteful and accomplished artist is Nora Keeling, who in The Driver (Oberon, $7.95 paper, $15.95 hard-cover) has written six stories about the difference between married and unmarried love. Keeling seems to think that unmarried love is better: her
heroines have more fun when they are taking in their fix-it men, psychiatrists and French professors than when they’re enduring their inevitably disappointing mates. This is not so much because stolen sex is sweeter, but because these women have married badly in the first place. Thus, even the flightiest, most lyrical of these tales remain serious at their core, for Keeling is exploring the old, cruel paradox that love and freedom can sometimes be found only in forbidden places.
Despite their consistently elegant style, not all of Keeling’s offerings are successful. The title story partakes of an easy hatred of men and conventional society that has become something of a stock posture in much of contemporary fiction. Fortunately, Keeling usually avoids such a crippling stance. In Himmler, Hotshot and Dandy, Keeling’s empathy extends not only to her heroine, but to the less attractive characters as well. A similar generosity pervades Memoir: to Guy, her best story, about a young Canadian who falls in love with a charismatic and impotent French drug addict. This is a wise and humorous portrait of someone with an almost inexhaustible hunger for life—which in Keeling’s world means a hunger for the right and loving man.
An even more complex form of love— the love that binds families together-
is tackled by Toronto writer F.G. Paci in Black Madonna (Oberon, $9.95 paper, $19.95 hard-cover), the second of his novels about the Italian immigrant community in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Paci focuses on the working-class Barones as he explores the inevitable conflicts that split young from old in a new country. A second-generation Canadian, Joey Barone seems to have assimilated well: he speaks little Italian and is fanatical about hockey. Yet his normality is deceiving: though approaching 30, he still lives at home, the unwitting prisoner of his doting mother and be-
nignly authoritarian father. Psychologically hamstrung, Joey retreats into himself—a very different form of escape from that chosen by his sister, Marie, who has fled to a new family and career in Toronto. It takes the death of both parents to jolt brother and sister into what Paci presents as a healthier relation to their heritage.
The reader may beg to differ. Though Paci disapproves of Marie for her denial of her background, one admires her spunk in escaping a suffocating situation. At the end Paci has her realize the “error” of her ways by having her put on one of her dead mother’s dresses. What is intended as an act of penance and cultural identification seems more a form of ghoulish capitulation. Joey too joins the ancestor worship as he reverently takes up his father’s bricklaying tools. In a very disturbing sense they have become their father and mother.
One misses in Paci’s competent, rather plodding style the flashes of poetry and drama that so enliven McWhirter and Keeling. Yet, while Black Madonna will not win him the Governor General’s Award, it certainly establishes him as part of the new wave of Canadian literature. These six writers are all proof that the business of using words to push to the limits of our experience is still the serious concern of some of the best minds and hearts in the country.
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