19 August 2019

Bach to the Future, Part III: The Squeaking Wheel

Final words on A Voice is Calling and its author.
About eight years ago, I posted a piece on The Squeaking Wheel, an ugly, bigoted screed that was self-published in 1966 under the pseudonym "John Mercer." All I knew of its authorship came from the book itself, which claimed "John Mercer" to be two men, both English-speaking Montrealers, who worked in the fields of advertising and medicine.

That's not much to go on.

"Even today their identities are a mystery," I wrote in my review. I doubt anyone was on the case – and wasn't myself – so, it was unhappy coincidence that in researching A Voice is Calling I came upon the obituary of its author (Montreal Gazette, 5 December 2001). It includes this sentence:
As an author he wrote A Voice is Calling, published in 1945; Trespass Against None, published in 1950; Le Dernier Voyage with Martine Hebert-Duguay, published in 1951; The Squeaking Wheel as John Mercer, published in 1965; Against the Tide, published in 1989; and Focus and Middle Distance, two autobiographical novels published recently.
And so, the identity of one of the two men behind The Squeaking Wheel is revealed. I wouldn't have guessed it from reading A Voice is Calling. The Squeaking Wheel is an anti-francophone rant, yet the hero of A Voice is Calling, Andre Brousseau, is a sympathetic and talented French Canadian. The novel's few anglophones are pleasant and encouraging. Given that every other character is a francophone, I don't think anything can be read into the fact that their number includes the three villains.

Eric Cecil Morris was the ad man behind The Squeaking Wheel – he was working for Cockfield-Brown at the time – but who was the medical man?

As before, I can't be bothered.

My original post on The Squeaking Wheel was deleted and rewritten for publication in The Dusty  Bookcase. Because I feel so strongly about the "John Mercer" book, I'm reposting my review as it first appeared on this blog on 27 December 2011:

The Squeaking Wheel;
     Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the French
and Love the Bomb
John Mercer [Eric Cecil Morris]
n.p.: Rubicon, 1966

Let's get rid of this so as to not track it into the New Year.

I came upon The Squeaking Wheel in an Ontario thrift shop; its bold, if inept declaration—"4TH. [sic] PRINTING OF THE BEST-SELLING BOOK ALL CANADA'S TALKING ABOUT!"—did attract.

I don't remember talk of this book; but then I was only just learning to speak when The Squeaking Wheel was first published. Sure looks like it was popular. The copyright page records four printings in three months! Two in February 1966 alone! In the foreword, author John Mercer tells us that the first two printings amounted to "many thousands" of copies. So why is this the only one I've ever seen? And why was there no fifth printing?

I'd ask John Mercer, but he's a fabrication, a pseudonym for two men to hide behind. "English-speaking Montrealers who have a curious desire not to be blown sky-high to a Protestant Heaven by a few well-placed sticks of dynamite," they reveal nothing more about themselves than that they work in the fields of advertising and medicine. Even today their identities are a mystery.

More furious than funny, those familiar with Rebel Media comment pages will recognize the John Mercer style. Irrational anger and uncontrolled ranting accompany fantastical statistics presented without citation. Quotations, even those pitching the book, lack attribution. It's all here, including that old saw about Quebecers being horrible drivers: “It has often been said by opponents of French-Canada that one way to solve the problem of Quebec is to give every inhabitant a car and turn all the traffic lights green for one day.”

Take care now. Those words come not from the authors, but the "opponents of French-Canada." Or so the John Mercer men would have you believe. The reader will soon recognize that they too are opponents.

The Quiet Revolution is five years old, the Bi and Bi Commission is just beginning, and already the authors, who "have lived all their adult lives in Quebec," are fed up. Their message is clear: "Quebec is a conquered country and its people are a conquered people"... and somewhat inferior:
We are a little tired of hearing about biculturalism and French-Canadian culture. We don’t quite agree with a noted politician who recently said the only thing French-Canadian culture has produced is strip-teaser Lily St. Cyr and hockey-player “Rocket” Richard.
Again, don't you be pinning this on John Mercer. That stuff about the stripper and the hockey player comes from some politician. Who? Who knows. The men behind the pseudonym are only repeating what they've heard, and they don't quite agree.

Not quite.

The Squeaking Wheel was never talked about by "everyone in Canada"; not even Montreal's English- and French-language presses gave it much attention. Serious discussion of the book is limited to a few sentences in journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland's Reflections (1968):
The pens of these English-speaking compatriots are certainly not very brave. Of course it is true that, when one describes unpleasant reality, one receives in return unpleasant insult. But liberty of speech demands the dignity and courage of that speech. And those who hurl invective at their compatriots, while keeping themselves well hidden, are not really respectable citizens.
Though I can’t top that, I’ll add that I don't think the cowards hiding behind the pseudonym were Montrealers. Real Montrealers know it's Lili, not "Lily"; and they know she was not French-Canadian, but American.

I'll add that we Canadians know not to hyphenate "hockey player."

There, sweet Virginia, I've scraped the shit right off my shoe.

Lili St. Cyr [née Willis Marie Van Schaack]
1918  - 1999
Maurice "Rocket"  Richard
1921 - 2000

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  1. Reminds me of 'The Under Dogs' (William Weintraub) that I thought looked promising but turned out to be a rather mean spirited satire about the evils of separation. I very rarely give up reading books - but that one just wasn't worth it, Montreal setting notwithstanding.

    1. II see The Squeaking Wheel as setting the groundwork for the even greater bigotry of Jock Andrews' Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow and anonymous Facebook cowards like 'Old Stock Canadian.'

      The Underdogs certainly hasn't aged well. Why Rock the Boat? and Getting Started are Bill Weintraub at his best.