30 March 2015

The Trouble With Charlie

The Fiend
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1966
224 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

25 March 2015

Pornography Dressed Up as a Cautionary Tale

Death by Deficit: A 2001 Novel
Richard Rohmer
Toronto: Stoddart, 1995

There are plenty of villains in this novel – Quebecers, bankers, the Japanese, a CBC reporter with beer on his breath – but only one appears more than fleetingly. This would be the unnamed former prime minister, a "burned-out politician" whose "lined round face was recognized by everyone in Canada."

I recognized him as Paul Martin, our twenty-first prime minister.

Rohmer's twenty-first prime minister is one of "the architects and the builders of the crisis." The emphasis, mine, is wholly justified. Death by Deficit is set in an imagined 2001, a future past, during the earliest days of the greatest crisis Canada has ever faced. Rohmer's twenty-second prime minister – known only, perhaps tellingly, as "Richard" – has just been sworn in when the economy collapses.

Not his fault. Blame Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and their years of reckless deficit spending. As the country's accumulated debt approaches one trillion dollars, the Japanese get jittery and start dumping their Canadian bonds and securities. Richard announces to the assembled media that he is certain the Americans and Europeans will do likewise.

Which they then do.

Which is meant to show how smart he is.

This reader thinks he's an idiot – and not just for that self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm sure the author wouldn't see it that way. Rohmer's Richard is a hero. The leader of a new party created by the merger of Reform and the Progressive Conservatives, he sees crisis as an opportunity to do whatever the hell he wants: slashing the civil service, privatizing Crown corporations, ending foreign aid, giving "Indians" the what for and, of course, slamming the door on immigration.

I once wrote about this type of story in reference to a fantasy Preston Manning published in the Globe & Mail. Masturbatory to those who favour the right, I called it porn. It is. The U of T's Sylvia Ostrey can hardly contain her excitement: "As usual, Richard Rohmer tells a gripping tale – but this time about fiscal policy!"

Former Progressive Conservative MP James Gillies joins in: "Death by Deficit uncannily captures the atmosphere which dominates the House, the caucus, and the Cabinet when there is a crisis."


There's never been a crisis in which a PM has called for the RCMP to be brought in to House of Commons to quell dissent.

Not yet, anyway.

Richard snubs his Cabinet and meets with his neophyte caucus only to deliver a false primer on "the parliamentary principle of party discipline."

Enter that beery-breathed CBC reporter, who dares make the very observation that Richard did behind closed doors:
"You have a new, inexperienced Cabinet filled with people who don't even know how to find a washroom in this place, let alone how to handle this crisis. Don't you think you should get some help, call in the best brains in the country?"
A fair question, it's followed by others until Richard changes the channel (pun intended):
"There is no longer any justification for the continuation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and its enormous drain on the public purse."
So ends the CBC. Cut the mike.

The prime minister never calls in "the best minds in the country", rather he phones Allan Greenspan Al Weinstock, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States.

Weinstock states the obvious:
"…you'd better open the IMF and World Bank doors. At least knock on them and let them know you're coming."
As if he hasn't already helped enough, the Chairman of the Fed gives Richard some phone numbers.

Accompanied by Abbi Black, his very hot "director of international studies," Weinstock flies to Ottawa, susses out the situation, and presents the "Weinstock Solution": Washington will take on Canadian debt in exchange for free access to the country's fresh water, abrogation of cultural protection and unobstructed negotiations that would see British Columbia absorbed by the United States.

Richard accepts the proposal with thanks. No negotiation necessary. No need to call the President.

God, what a mess. It's not like we didn't see it coming.

Remember that 1993 episode of W5 devoted to New Zealand's meltdown?

Sure you do. After all, the reporter was "one of Canada's best, probably the best, TV news magazine producer, Eric Malling." American Abbi Black thinks so much of the show that she presents the entire transcript to Richard, his Minister of Finance, the President of the Treasury Board and, ultimately, the reader. Thirty pages of disjointed prose follow.

"There's been some criticism of the program," hot Abbi acknowledges, "but it's okay for our purposes."

Criticism? Well, yes. In fact, Malling's report inspired Linda McQuaig's Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Myths, which laid bare Malling's… let's say "stretching of the truth."

Published six months before Rohmer's novel, McQuaig's Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Myths dominated the 1995 bestseller lists and was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award for English-language Non-Fiction.

Rohmer's Death by Deficit is, of course, pure fiction. You can tell because he inflates Canada's 1993-94 debt, has it that Employment Insurance is a drain on our taxes and repeats that old saw about Francophones controlling the civil service.

Think of it all as a novelist's prerogative.

Still, I can't help but think that Rohmer believes these things, just as I'm certain he believes the PM's warped version of parliamentary democracy is spot on. Death by Deficit is our world, but a little off, like cheese that's been left out too long smeared over the pages of The Plot Against America. In Richard Rohmer's Canada a female Governor General delivers the "Speech From [sic] the Throne" decked out like Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball.

Death by Deficit predicts a Chrétien government that paid no attention whatsoever to the growing national debt, when in fact it began paying off same with record surpluses. Credit belongs to Paul Martin, who is referred to in the novel as a "lying bastard".

I'll hand the author this: Paul Martin did indeed become our twenty-first prime minister. What's more, our twenty-second, Stephen Harper, leads a party born of a merger of Reform and the Progressive Conservatives. What Rohmer gets wrong is that the Harper government has run the largest deficits in Canadian history, raising us to unprecedented heights of public debt.

What he gets right is that, like Richard's party, Stephen's votes as one.


Trivia: In Generally Speaking: The Memoirs of Major-General Richard Rohmer, the author describes Paul Martin as "a good friend of mine." Rohmer isn't mentioned in Hell or High Water, Martin's autobiography.

Best passage:
It was Abbi Black who was the sight to behold. The PM's male hormone computer told him she was one of the most strikingly beautiful women he had ever laid eyes on. His computer went up a further notch when she slipped off her heavy coat and white scarf. This tall, high-healed, long-limbed, slim beauty was wearing a tight-fitting black woollen sheath with a gleaming row of golden buttons running down from the discretely low-cut bodice that covered her firm breasts (just the right size, according to his computer).
     His eyes took in the cascade of wavy ebony hair and the smooth, unlined forehead, the black, well-shaped eyebrows arched over eyes that held deep-brown pupils in their centres. Her nose was perfectly shaped, her high cheekbones led to a wide, full-lipped mouth with exquisite teeth.
     The PM liked – very much – what he saw, but there was serious business at hand, and he switched off his internal computer as he shook Abbi Black's soft, well-manicured hand.
Highest concentration of hyphens in Canadian literature (but that's not why I point it out).

The doors of the Speaker's chambers opened. There the Right Honourable Pearl McConachie stood in radiant white, her long form-fitting gown reaching to the scarlet carpet. He sleeved arms were partly concealed by a purple cape that sat on her slender shoulders. The wavy blond hair was fetched upwards, seemingly encased in a delicate, glittering tiara.
Object and Access: A well-padded 234-page hardcover in Tory blue boards, my copy set me back 60¢ last summer. Online booksellers offer a dozen or so at prices ranging from $4.11 to $38.74. Condition is not a factor. Pay no more than 60¢.

Death by Deficit was printed only once and has never come out in paperback, meaning all copies out there are first editions. Pay no more than 60¢.

Thirteen of our academic libraries have copies, as does Library and Archives Canada. Public library users will find the book in the Calgary Public Library, the Red Deer Public Library, the Medicine Hat Public Library and the Toronto Public Library.
Death by Deficit was read for Reading Richard Rohmer
Related posts:

16 March 2015

A Very Canadian Succès de scandale

The Parliamentary Librarian chased after "Gilbert Knox". Conservative MP Alfred Fripp joined in the hunt, intent on having the author deported to who knows where. The clergy condemned, Ottawa echoed with talk of lawsuits, an election was fought. and a government fell. In the midst of it all, the woman behind the pseudonym suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent away to a Toronto nursing home…
So begins my latest Canadian Notes & Queries Dusty Bookcase column. The rest is found in the new issue, number 92, sharing pages with writing by Michel Basilières, Laura Bast, Darryl Joel Berger, Kerry Clare, Michael Darling, Marc di Saverio, Jennifer A. Franssen, Kaper Hartman, Melanie Janisse, Lydia Kwa, Nick Maandag, David Mason, John McFetridge, Shane Neilson, Patricia Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Mark Sampson, Russell Smith, JC Sutcliffe, Nicholas Zacharewicz and, of course, Seth.

Fellow contributors will understand my singling out Alex Good's "Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow" and Stephen Henighan's "Jimmy the Crossdresser, Mother of Mavis Gallant" as being particularly worthy of attention.

My own contribution, much more modest, concerns The Land of Afternoon, a very good, yet forgotten roman à clef published in 1925 under the name "Gilbert Knox". Madge Macbeth (right) was its true author, which is something not even her publisher knew. The author took the secret to her grave, leaving behind a bright white paper trail for all to follow.

Few have.

Go back ninety years and we'd all be talking about The Land of Afternoon. The first book to come out of Ottawa's Graphic Publishers, it landed in the midst of the federal election fought between Arthur Meighen's Conservatives and the Liberals of William Lyon Mackenzie King. The latter doesn't figure, but Meighen served as a model for protagonist Raymond Dillings, Member of Parliament for Pinto Plains. Wife Isabel inspired Marjorie Dillings… and on it goes.

Again, you'll find more in the new CNQ.

For now, a couple of pieces of trivia that didn't make it into the piece:
  1. In February 1936, a scene from the novel was dramatized by Toronto's Canadian Literature Club.
  2. Macbeth's good friend Lawrence Burpee once appeared in disguise at a Canadian Authors Association event as "Gilbert Knox".
Burpee, not Knox, May 1926
Subscriptions to CNQ are available through this link.

09 March 2015

Dirty Old Town

The Town Below [Au pied de la pente douce]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Samuel Putnam]
New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1948

We open on thieves fleeing the scene of a crime. They scramble, descending on Quebec's Lower Town. Cops wait below, but can't catch them. No surprise there. These crooks are young, spry, and this part of the city, St-Sauveur, is their territory. They take refuge in the Lévesque family's garage; Lise Lévesque provides cover. By way of thanks, she's offered a share of the goods: apples stolen from the Dominican brothers'  orchard.

Lise, belle Lise, has just returned from convent school. Two of the gang, best pals Denis Boucher and Jean Colin, are immediately smitten. I was too, and prepared for a tale of friendship torn apart by the pursuit of the most beautiful girl in St-Sauveur. Instead, I encountered the finest social satire I've read in years. This isn't to say that the rivalry between Denis and Jean doesn't figure, rather that it doesn't dominate. For the better half of the book it is nothing more than another thread in the tangle of relationships, events and interests that clogs this working class neighbourhood.

The Globe & Mail, 12 April 1948
The Town Below is a first novel; as is my habit I made allowances. The chaos of that first scene sets a bad course. Lemelin crams and confuses by trying to accomplish too much all at once. Focus shifts, jarringly, between paragraphs, and there are simply too many characters. But who to cut? All are so fascinating! My personal favourites are Cécile and Peuplière Latruche, spinster sisters who have singled out one of St-Sauveur's dead consumptive kids for sainthood:
Prior to the discovery of their little saint, these parasites, disappointed at being refused admission to the Daughters of Mary and the Ladies of the Holy Family, had felt themselves to be of little importance, without an object in life. In view of this, it is not so hard to understand their sudden and furious devotion to this dead youth, whom they in a manner of speaking had rehabilitated. These elderly spinsters had a purpose now; and if their past was wholly taken up with their virginity, the Ark of the Covenant for them, their future was filled with the disembodied form of a heavenly stripling. 
Avant la découverte de leur petit saint, ces parasites, dépitées d'être refusées parmi les Enfants de Marie et les Femmes de la Sainte Famille, s'étaient senties comme diminuées. Aussi ne songeait-on pas à convaincre de futilité ces vieilles filles dont tout le passé était rempli par le conservatisme de leur virginité et dont tout l'avenir se remplirait des formes désincarnées d'un céleste jouvenceau.
I offer the original French because the greatest problem with The Town Below isn't Lemelin, rather translator Samuel Putnam. An American francophile who, one presumes, knew much more about France than Canada. After misspelling Wilfrid Laurier's name in the Introductory Note, he writes:
The term "restaurant" has here been employed in the Canadian sense, that of a small shop where candies, ice-cream comes, liqueurs, and the like are sold.
I have no idea what he's talking about.

Putnam stinks when it comes to dialogue – "Les flics, les gars!" becomes "It's the cops, fellows!" – but his greatest weakness is verbosity and explication. Au pied de la pente douce is 90,000 words long; The Town Below is 125,000. If anything, one would expect the reverse.

The beginning of the novel's fifteenth chapter has Denis walking home, books in hand, when he encounters Lise:
— Les beaux livres! Prêtuez-les moi.
Il eut sourire embarrassé.
— Ils sont à l'index.
Ell masqua son désire plus ardent de les lire.
Putnam's translation adds both dialogue and description:
     "What have you there?" she asked.
     "Some books."
     "How nice! Lend them to me, will you?"
     His own smile was an embarrassed one. "They are on the Index."
     That made her all the more anxious to read them, but she was careful not to let him perceive it.
The exchange serves as a reminder, as if any were needed, that this is a novel written and set in Duplessis-era Quebec. That it was published during that dark time, escaped the censor, sold over 25,000 copies in year one, and received the Prix David and the Prix de la langue française has had me questioning my understanding of the Grande Noirceur.

The Gazette, 15 May 1946
Putnam's translation, published by McClelland & Stewart (Canada) and Reynolds & Hitchcock (United States), garnered a good amount of attention, but soon slipped out of print. In 1961, The Town Below was revived as book number 26 in the New Canadian Library. It was reprinted four times in twelve years before being dropped from the series. One wonders why; there were other titles that didn't perform nearly so well.

Should we blame Constance Beresford-Howe, who in reviewing the NCL edition dismissed the novel as one that had a shock value long past?


Margaret Laurence, whose opinion Jack McClelland regarded highly, thought The Town Below "a sprawling and savagely funny novel grotesque and evasive, endlessly interesting."

Lemelin's debut is every one of those things. A bit too sprawling perhaps, but I don't hesitate in recommending. Read it in the original if you can; read it as The Town Below if you can't. What you'll find is one of the finest first novels to have ever come out of Quebec.

It's so good that even a crummy translation is worth your time.

There was silence, possibly filled by the stammerings of a limp and deflated Pritontin. He was heartbroken over what had happened in the church and no longer counted on anything less than a miracle. That firecracker had destroyed something more than his trousers.

Trivia: The Reynal & Hitchock edition confuses Lemelin's birthplace, Quebec City's St-Saveur, with the town of the same name three hundred kilometres to the west.

More trivia: Janet Friskney's New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952-1978, informs that Glen Shortliffe, who penned the NCL introduction, alerted M&S to "lapses in idiom and mistaken translations of particular words" found in Putnam's work. These were addressed by an in-house editor before publication.

Still more trivia: Lemelin's original title was Les grimpeurs.

Object: A 302-page hardcover in grey cloth with burgundy print. The cheap paper stock used by Reynald & Hitchcock makes for a book that is much slimmer than one might expect. My copy once belonged to W.F. Beckwith, who lived at 4194 Melrose Ave., Montreal, two blocks south from where I lived when attending university. It was bought for three dollars in 1988, the year after I graduated.

I can't believe it took so long to get around to reading it.

Access: First published in 1944 by les Éditions de l'Arbre, Au pied de la pent douce has ever been out of print. Its current publisher is Stanké. Samuel Putnam's translation was reissued two years ago with a new Introduction by Michael Gnarowski as part of Dundurn's Voyageur Classics series.

Two copies of the Reynal & Hitchcock edition are listed online; the better of the two – "Good" – is priced at twenty American dollars. The McClelland & Stewart hardcover is nowhere in sight. New Canadian Library copies can be had for as little as a Yankee buck.

Held by the best of our bigger public libraries and nearly all of our universities.

I have three.