Books

His life as a scribe

Douglas Fetherling continues his chronicle of literary Toronto

John Bemrose November 25 1996
Books

His life as a scribe

Douglas Fetherling continues his chronicle of literary Toronto

John Bemrose November 25 1996

His life as a scribe

Books

Douglas Fetherling continues his chronicle of literary Toronto

WAY DOWN DEEP IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST:

A MEMOIR OF THE SEVENTIES

By Douglas Fetherling (Lester 258 pages, $24.95)

In Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast, the second volume of his engaging memoirs, Douglas Fetherling recalls the day in 1972 when he heard that J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI since 1924, had, as he puts it, “finally died and gone to Hell.” Fetherling, who had immigrated to Canada from West Virginia five years earlier, was browsing in a Toronto bookstore when the news came over the radio. He was taken aback when the other customers cheered, but he later concluded that the outbreak represented the crest of a healthy anti-Americanism that soon afterwards began to decline. “For that and other complicated reasons,” Fetherling tartly observes, ‘Toronto would never be so livable again.”

That rather eccentric linking of antiAmericanism with the livability of Toronto

will not surprise anyone who has read the first volume of Fetherling’s memoirs, Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties. Fetherling came to Toronto to escape both the shadow of his terrifically unhappy childhood and a society that he saw as imperialistic and in moral decay. But in Toronto—that city so many Canadians love to hate—he found a civic and artistic vitality that he longed to be part of.

And, in the end, he found success there, but not before the now-noted journalist and poet had endured a long, penurious apprenticeship to his craft.

Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast continues the narrative of the earlier book into the 1970s, a decade that coincided with Fetherling’s 20s (he is now 47). Describing himself as “the most obnoxiously ubiquitous independent writer in the city,” he evokes a time when, struggling to make

ends meet, he was haunted by the necessity of turning every idea that occurred to him into a potential article: “For a dozen years I never knew the luxury of an unexpressed thought.”

Fetherling writes about himself—his chronic depression, his troubles forming a lasting relationship with a woman, his public awkwardness—with a graceful candor. Yet the book’s lasting value lies in its telling portraits of some of Canada’s better-known writers and journalists, including Peter C. Newman and Robert Fulford. He effectively describes the late novelist Hugh Garner as “a fierce-looking almost tubby man on short legs, like an old Victorian chair that had lost some of its stuffing in the Salvation Army.” Most of Fetherling’s cameos are generous, and a few are flattering. But a couple of them take a wickedly sharp scalpel to the alleged pretensions of certain magazine editors he has worked for—the luxury of a well-honed thought.

JOHN BEMROSE