15 July 2015

The Man Who Hated Toronto

Present Reckoning
Hugh Garner
Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1951

Tom Neelton has arrived too late for the party, but he doesn't care. It's the morning after V-J Day and he has just stepped off a train at Union Station. Outside, steamers hang limply from lampposts and confetti clogs the gutters.

What is he doing here?

Tom hates Toronto. Though born and raised in the city, "it had been something he had had to fight, an enemy of brick and stone and smug condescension." Tom's mother and father are dead. His nearest kin is a dishonest aunt with whom he made the mistake of storing his civilian clothes before shipping out. She'll claim that the moths got to them.

Again, what is he doing here?

At first, I thought the answer lay in Carol Berkett. Seven years ago, when he was twenty-five and she was seventeen, they'd gone out for a bit. She'd even brought him home to meet her mom. Roast was served. Tom and Carol did some necking on the chesterfield. He never called on her again.

He's now thinking he made a mistake. Tom imagines a better life, one in which Carol would have been waiting at the train station. He returns to familiar digs, a cheap room in the Pentland Hotel (read: Warwick Hotel), determined to track her down. But it turns out that she's not in the phone book. Her mom's not in the phone book either. Then, "like a soft slap against his consciousness", it occurs to him that Carol might be married.

So he gives up and is soon snogging Margaret, the buxom blonde who works the front desk.

Tom guessed right about Carol. We know because Garner devotes several chapters to her marriage.


Not unhappy. Husband George, a punch press operator, has come to accept that his passion for amateur radio is not shared. He sometimes gets a good chuckle out of Blondie, which is his wife's favourite comic strip. Carol, who often thinks of her brief romance with Tom, becomes much more contented after the birth of baby Harold.

Clearly, Tom and Carol are destined to meet, but this doesn't occur before the second half of the novel. Until then, the returning veteran kills time drinking with friends in the local beer parlour. Margaret decamps for Kamloops, Tom takes up with bohemian art school student Louise Kramer and Garner runs up the word count.

Biographer Paul Stewe is dismissive of Present Reckoning, focussing in on what he considers a melodramatic climax. In the monograph he penned for the Canadian Writers & their [sic]Works series, George Fetherling describes it as "a little novel which depends far too much on chance meetings, coincidence and on the double-whammy at the end and is nowhere near the level of Garmer's best prose."

I agree with that last bit. That said, I count only two coincidences or chance meetings:
  • Louise sees Tom in a museum one week, then spots him a library the next.
  • Twelve months after returning to town, Tom encounters old flame Carol on the street.
These things happen.

I won't spoil the ending, other that to say that I found it believable, strong enough, more than a little upsetting and not the least bit melodramatic. But what I really took away from Present Reckoning – what is really of value – is its depiction of Toronto in the months after the war.

Carol lives in a new development, ever aware of the prying eyes of neighbouring housewives. George's company prepares for the new peacetime economy. Tom looks over glasses of beer, gauging the progress of a disfigured drinking buddy's reconstructed face. He'll also make the mistake of returning to an old haunt where he's confronted by "young punks in zoot-suit pants and girls in Eisenhower jackets." Tom later describes the scene to Carol:
"They danced differently than we did, wore their hair in brush cuts and feathered bobs, and stared at me standing on the sidelines as though I was a bouncer. I moved over near the orchestra and spent an hour or so listening to the music trying to recapture the feeling I had in the old days, but it was no use. I didn't belong there."
There's something not to like about Present Reckoning. It meanders in a way that had me wondering whether Garner wasn't drawing from unpublished stories and other jottings. After all, he'd done just that the year before with the pseudonymous Waste No Tears.

Again, I agree with my friend George that this is not Garmer's best prose. And yet passages like this, in which newly arrived Tom is confronted by his first sight of the Royal York Hotel, are just about the greatest things he ever wrote:
The hotel – Largest in the British Empire – squatted sullenly against the opposite sidewalk, daring those leaving the station to pass it by without a glance. He forced his eyes along its self-satisfied exterior and thought back to the days of its opening fifteen years before. There had been much fanfare then, with big-wigs by the score. Ben Bernie's orchestra, a porter for every bag and doormen garbed in coachman's habit. During the depression the coachmen had disappeared along with many of the other opulent ostentations, and for years the edifice had gone on like a bankrupt dowager, bravely pretending that things had not changed and that its hundreds of empty rooms were full of guests. To him it symbolized the city: smug, part good taste and bad, a brave thing formed of a maladmixture of decency and sham.
What was Tom Neelton doing back in Toronto?

Better the hell you know.

He'll come to wish he'd never returned.

A Bonus: Over at Canadian Fly-By-Night, Bowdler identifies the corner depicted on the cover as Bay and Richmond. The scene does not feature in the novel.

Object and Access:: A 158-page novel with a further two pages advertising Peter Cheyney's Lady Behave and One of Those Things. Present Reckoning was Garner's third paperback original, and was printed but once. My copy, a Reading Copy in every sense, was purchased last month at London's Attic Books. Price: $7.50.

Sixty-four years after publication, the novel has become scarce. I've found just three copies listed for sale online – all Fine, they range in price from US$75 to US$100.

All of six university libraries and the Toronto Public Library have the book in their holdings. As might be expected, Library and Archives Canada fails.

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  1. What a fine (and honest) review! Although I will probably fail in the search, you've nevertheless persuaded me to look for a copy of the book. I am especially interested in the historical contexts, so I hope to succeed in my search. Thanks for the posting!

    1. Thank you, R.T. It occurs to the that you might be interested in Garner's debut novel, Storm Below (1949), which takes place on a Royal Canadian Navy ship during an escort run across the Atlantic. Garner served on a RCN corvette during the Second World War.

      Best of luck in your hunt!