29 January 2014

Remembering John Buell: A Lot to Make Up For

A Lot to Make Up For
John Buell
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 1990

John Buell died last month. I know because a friend forwarded the obituary his family placed in The Gazette. The newspaper itself did nothing. The fourth estate, which in life never properly recognized the novelist, has been silent on Buell's passing.

Edmund Wilson, the great American critic, praised John Buell's novels. Forget him. Wilson knew nothing about Canadian literature. O Canada, the book he crafted for the centennial, is an embarrassing late career cash-in. And yet, for all his flailing, Bunny landed truth with Buell.

John Buell's novels came onto us in fits and starts. The first, The Pyx (1959) and Four Days (1962), were followed by a decade of silence; then came The Shrewsdale Exit (1972) and Playground (1976). A Lot to Make Up For, his fifth and final novel, broke an even longer silence. Short, yet complex, it centres on three damaged characters: Adele Symons, Stan Hagan, and Martin Lacey. Things come together. A single mother, Adele is cleaning houses in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Stan is searching for her, intent on righting past wrongs. Martin offers Stan room and board in exchange for help with his crops. Addiction plays a role in all three lives. Past addiction. A Lot to Make Up For is a story of recovery, redemption and restoration. Positive, it gives hope, yet there is no happy ending.

The words end, but not the story.

The Globe & Mail, 4 August 1990
Object: A 202-page hardcover in tan boards. The HarperCollins Canada edition is so similar to the American Farrar, Straus & Giroux that the author bio reads:

Access: Concordia University, the institution at which the author taught for thirty-seven years, does not have a copy.

More than decent copies of the Canadian first edition are available online for as little as eight dollars. The American first edition can be had for a buck. Neither HarperCollins Canada nor Farrar, Straus & Giroux went back for second printings.

In the autumn of 1991, HarperCollins Canada reissued the novel as a trade paperback. I've never seen a copy. A Lot to Make Up For is the alone amongst Buell's five novels in having not been translated.

"In lieu of flowers, please make a donation in John's name to the charity you support."

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  1. When I worked at the Atwater Library in the 1990s, we had multiple copies of The Pyx, and a few of his other novels, and when weeding, I would always keep them even though they hadn't been read in years and years. With automation and rigorous weeding, they've unlikely kept their shelf space.

    Interesting case of an author slipping silently into the unswept and unlit back room of obscurity. It is good we have someone like you who can shine a light into the dusty shadows.

    Though a born and bred Montrealer like yourself, I have to admit I've never read Buell.

    1. I like to think that they're still there, Ralph, but then I too have seen the effects wrought by automation. Still, one would think that Concordia would do better - its Vanier Library holds the John Buell fonds, for goodness sake.

      Clearly, I'm recommending Buell. I suggest beginning with Four Days.

  2. I'm not sure if I still have this book and at least one more of Buell's or may have donated them in a purge. Reading your site has got me paying more attention to my older Canadian books, many of which are in boxes, and now at sales I watch for the type of older paperbacks you have mentioned. Yesterday in a thrift shop, I even took a look at the Harlequin section on the chance I might spot one of the old mysteries they published. No luck. But next week is one of our Chlidren's Hospital Book Market sales where you can often find interesting stuff in the Canadian section.

    1. Good luck at that hospital book sale, Kent. I remember buying old pre-romance Harlequins, Collins White Circle and News Stand Library books at 25¢ or 5 for $1 as a teenager. Can't say I cared about the contents; it was the covers that appealed. I sold everything for a fairly handsome prophet in my first move from Montreal to Vancouver and now find myself paying a premium to get some of the very same titles back.

  3. I met John Buell in person in December 2001. He was as polite and pleasant a fellow as you could hope to meet, and quite modest, which cannot be said for writers with half Buell's talent. Since watching Harvey Hart's film adaptation of The Pyx, I had been intrigued with Buell and intent on tracking down and reading all his novels, none of which were in print in the U.S. I found The Pyx, A Lot to Make Up For, and Playground in Montreal Bookstores, Four Days in a used bookstore in Philadelphia, and Buell was kind enough to send me an OP paperback copy of The Shrewsdale Exit after we met. His novels are the product of a rare and immense literary talent. It is our task to help keep his distinguished body of work alive in whatever ways we can.

  4. Thanks so much for writing about Buell. Your posts helped inspire me to read "A Lot to Make Up For." Great novel! BTW, the character is Martin, not Milton, but the rest of your post is well said.

    1. Milton? How could I have made that mistake? Thank you, Dawn. I'll change it.

      I'm pleased to learn of your admiration A Lot to Make Up For. I sometimes think it is his weakest novel. Could be… but John Buell was so good a writer that his weakest verges on greatness. If you haven't already, I recommend his Four Days. That it's no longer in print is a disgrace.