Books

Ode to an absent dad

Irving Layton’s son recalls growing up in the shadow of his father’s monumental ego

John Bemrose November 1 1999
Books

Ode to an absent dad

Irving Layton’s son recalls growing up in the shadow of his father’s monumental ego

John Bemrose November 1 1999

Ode to an absent dad

Irving Layton’s son recalls growing up in the shadow of his father’s monumental ego

Books

Motion Sickness By David Layton Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 243pages, $29.95

The children of the famous can have as hard a time getting an audience with their celebrated parents as anyone else—just ask David Layton. He recalls that his father, poet Irving Layton, was so obsessed with writing poems, chasing women and proclaiming his own genius that he scarcely had time for him. Davids mother, Aviva, as the lover and companion of The Great Man, was almost equally distracted. When she wasn’t trying to patch up her relationship with her philandering partner, she was philandering herself—and in the process spiriting David around between homes in Canada and temporary digs in England and the Mediterranean. David grew up confused, scared and roodess, not to mention spaced out on the anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin, which his mother sometimes dipped into as well.

It’s all there in 35-year-old David’s first book, Motion Sickness, a drolly captivating memoir that walks a fine line between remembrance and revenge.

Motion Sickness is a deceptively simple story told, for the most part, from the vantage point of a 10-year-old. At first glance, David seems determined to paint his father as an exuberant buffoon. When he shows his son how to plant a garden (he knows almost nothing about it, as even little David can see), he digresses with a pompous celebration of poets. Giants of history such as Caesar and Hider, he declares, are merely “fodder for minstrels.”

Yet Motion Sickness is subtle and humane enough to hint at another side to

all this: Irving is getting old (he is in his 60s for most of the book) and must struggle to put a brave face on his displacement from Aviva’s bed by her younger lover, scriptwriter Leon Whiteson. At times, in fact, he seems almost a tragic figure who—in a country largely indifferent to poetry—has had to turn himself into a carnival barker to extol its merits. In the final chapter, as Irving slips into senility, his son—who by now has reached adulthood—offers a moving, reconciliatory tenderness.

Unlike Irving, who in his writing favoured a booming rhetoric, his son writes a limpid and understated prose. He is particularly good at evoking people and places in a few words (he recalls novelist Scott Symons’ pipe jammed between his teeth like “an animal paw caught in a steel trap”). Motion Sickness does not always work so well: there are tedious stretches, and while David stresses that his early life was “poisoning” him, his narrative remains more a patchwork of external observations than a consistent exploration of his own struggles. Yet for all that, Motion Sickness is a notable debut—certainly much more than a footnote to a famous name.

John Bemrose