03 February 2014

Still Reading Richard Rohmer. Is Alice Munro?

More than a month into the New Year and I'm still at it. So are my pals Chris Kelly and Stanley Whyte.

The books themselves have been a breeze; the last, Exxoneration, was really just a novella made to look like a novel through maps, technical drawings, clip art and appendices.

More padding than Craig Russell.

The real challenge has come in hunting down the darn things.

Time was Rohmer could be found in every bookstore and library in the land. Ultimatum, his 1973 debut novel, topped Canadian bestseller lists for nearly six months in hardcover, and did even better in paperback. Such was its success that the Americans noticed, publishing this edition:

The scene isn't in the novel. Never mind, the adventures of a no nonsense President piloting Air Force One around the arctic and ordering an invasion of Canada could not have failed to excite. New York publishers were much less interested in Exxoneration, the 1974 sequel, in which the invasion party retreats, leaving two hundred burning Yankee corpses on the tarmac outside arrivals at Toronto International Airport. There has never been an American edition.

North of the border, it seemed Richard Rohmer could do no wrong. Each fall a new novel, each novel a bestseller. His success was limited to Canada, and his success puzzled. In the 2 October 1976 Globe & Mail, no less a mind than the great Stephen Lewis searched for an explanation:
Perhaps it's all the hype and determined salesmanship of McClelland and Stewart. Perhaps, more likely, it's that Rohmer neatly touches Canadian themes in a country starving for Canadian themes. Perhaps the very superficiality engages interest without emotion, so that there's no investment of the mind and spirit, and the reading is easy. Or perhaps we're just a not very discriminating public…
Perhaps it's all four, but I think the second is key. My pre-teen self was starved for Canadian fiction, and the wire racks of Kane's Super Drug Mart in Kirkland, Quebec, provided what the Lakeshore School Board did not. Rohmer's talent lay in an uncanny ability to tap into his fellow citizens' fantasies and fears. Separation, about the threatened succession of Quebec, was published the month before the surprise victory of the Parti Québécois in the 1976 provincial election.

Separation proved to be the end of the Rohmer's rapid-fire round. When he returned with his fifth novel, four years later, the momentum was gone. Balls! was another bestseller, sure, but nothing like the others; most of the publicity focussed on the ribald title. Its 1980 publication marked the beginning of a long slow decline.

Just five Rohmer novels are in print today, three of which are bound up in an omnibus edition. How different are the days when we were not only reading Rohmer but passing him around. My copy of Ultimatum had once been given as a gift by Eric Kierans.

Our local library doesn't have one of Rohmer's thirty-one books, nor does its much larger sister in Stratford. The copy of Exodus/UK pictured at the top of this post had to be brought in from Huron County through an interlibrary loan. Starting in on it late last night I noticed this:

Time was we all read Richard Rohmer.

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  1. I read either "Ultimatum" or "Exxoneration," or both, in the mid-1970s. I was trying to remember the name of the titles and the author (it's now 2014), and it took a lot of rooting around on the Internet to locate the information. This is evidently one thoroughly forgotten novelist.