17 April 2024

Morley Callaghan's Red Ryan Rocket

More Joy in Heaven
Morley Callaghan
New York: Random House, 1937
278 page

It's been decades since Intro to CanLit II, my second introduction to Canadian literature. Like Intro to CanLit I, the  course covered four works; all novels, all written by men. Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night was my favourite, but I do remember liking They Shall Inherit the Earth. We were told that its author, Morley Callaghan, was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world.” Here our professor was quoting Edmund Wilson. He made much of this, but at  twenty the name Edmund Wilson meant nothing to me.

They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935) sits in the middle of a run of three novels considered Callaghan's best. The first, Such is My Beloved (1934), involves a handsome young priest – in fiction all young priests are handsome – who befriends two prostitutes. It vies with the third, More Joy in Heaven, as Callaghan's best known novel. They Shall Inherit the Earth is not nearly so well known. You can understand why. They Shall Inherit the Earth is a story about a father and son who, to quote the cover of my old NCL edition (right), are "forced to re-examine the nature of individual conscience and responsibility." It has no sex workers, nor does it have a bank robber.

More Joy in Heaven has both.

Its protagonist, Kip Caley, isn't a prostitute, but he had robbed banks – so many banks that he was sentenced to life and twenty lashes. In prison, Caley underwent a transformation of some kind. There's no suggestion that he found God, though Caley did find Father Butler, the prison chaplain. Somehow, the worst man in Canada becomes the most beloved.

Callaghan is lazy.

The novel opens on Christmas Day, the day of Caley's release from Kingston Penitentiary. Father Brown is present, as is Senator Maclean, who had fought for a pardon.

Caley returns to his hometown, Toronto, where he takes a job at a hotel and nightclub that caters to sporting types. The senator arranged it all. A greeter, a position in which he never feels comfortable, all Caley has to do is welcome patrons. Everyone wants to meet the reformed man; it's great for business. Kip Caley is the toast of the town, but as months pass he seems more the man of the hour.

More Joy in Heaven is a good novel, but the greatest fiction is found on its copyright page:

Contemporary reviewers were not fooled.

Callaghan modelled Caley on Norman "Red" Ryan, a career criminal who had been killed by police on 23 May 1936, eighteen months before publication. It was big news.
The Globe, 25 May 1936
Like Caley, Ryan was held up – no pun intended  – as a model of reform. He was fêted, given plumb jobs,  including a weekly radio show, only to be gunned down ten months later during a botched robbery of a Sarnia liquor store.

The Big Red Fox, Peter McSherry's 1999 Arthur Ellis nominated biography of Ryan, is recommended.

More Joy in Heaven is also recommended, as is They Shall Inherit the Earth.

I'm guessing Edmund Wilson would concur.

Trivia: Ernest Hemingway covered Ryan for the Toronto Daily Star and had himself considered writing a novel with a character modelled on the man. I've often wondered whether Papa mentioned the idea to fellow Star reporter Callaghan.

 I purchased my copy, a first edition, in 1989 from a cart at the Westmount Public Library. Sadly, it lacks the dust jacket (above), but then what can you expect for $1.00.

Access: The novel remains in print, though I suspect the copies have been sitting in Penguin Random House for over a decade now. What's offered features the 2007 New Canadian Library cover design... and, well, the New Canadian Library is long dead.

The 1960 and 2009 NCL editions.
More Joy in Heaven was one of the earliest NCL titles. Hugo McPherson wrote the introduction to the first NCL edition; Margaret Avison wrote an afterword for the last. Penguin Random House LLC is asking $19.95, though used copies are far cheaper. First editions listed online start at US$20 (sans dust jacket) and go all the way up to US$150. For my money, the best buy is a Very Good to Near Fine copy offered by a Winchester, Virginia bookseller. Price: US$110.

I expected Italian and French translations, but have found only a Russian: Радость на небесах. The first in a three-novel Морли Каллаган volume published in 1982, it also features Тихий уголок (A Fine and Private Place) and И снова к солнцу (Closer to the Sun).

Why those novels, I wonder?

I read More Joy in Heaven for The 1937 Club.

After all these years, the only other 1937 title I've reviewed at The Dusty Bookcase is John by Irene Baird.

Related post:

16 April 2024

Of Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns, and David Richard Beasley

Canadian Authors You Should Know is a self-published book written by a man who counts himself amongst those you should know.
   Is that not absurd?
   It was doubly so for this reviewer because I do know David Richard Beasley.
So begins my review of Canadian Authors You Should Know, now available in the Spring edition of The Dorchester Review. Beasley's book is one of the most idiosyncratic works of CanLit scholarship I have ever read. His Canadian authors you should know number eight, of which these are the first seven:
John Richardson
Herman Whitaker
Frederick Philip Grove
Wyndham Lewis
Norman, Newton
Thomas B. Costain
Jamie Brown

The eighth is David Richard Beasley.

I knew six. Herman Whitaker (1867-1919) was new to me. A Brit, he spent spent much of his twenties in Canada before leaving in 1895 for California. The first of his three novels, The Settler, was published ten years later.

I've never considered writers just passing through Canadian, so was more interested in what Beasley had to say about Vancouver's Norman Newton (1929-2011), another author who was new to me.

Just think, all those years I'd lived on Davie Street, immersed in the literary scene, President of the Federation of BC Writers, and I'd never once heard Norman Newton's name.

And so I purchased a copy – sight unseen – of The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship, Newton's fourth and final novel. 

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969
Black matte with a foil overlay, as an object it hasn't aged particularly well. Never mind. Look closely at the jacket and you will see this:

Oh, Canada.

08 April 2024

Turn around, bright eyes (just don't look up)

Eclipse of the Heart
Mary Lyons
Toronto: Harlequin, 1985

Perhaps not a total eclipse of the heart, but then it's only 189 pages.


Our home during the eclipse.

04 April 2024

A Man of Peculiar Notions

Dennison Grant: A Novel of To-Day
Robert Stead
Toronto: Musson, 1920
388 pages

Robert Stead's fourth novel, Dennison Grant follows The Bail Jumper, The Homesteaders, and The Cow Puncher. So, who is Dennison Grant? A cowboy? A farmer? A hired hand? 

This is not a novel for the impatient. The titular character doesn't appear until the fifty-fifth page. He sticks around for another two before literally riding away. Dennison Grant reappears fifty-four pages later – page 111, for those keeping track – at which point he begins to dominate the narrative.

Grant's first appearance has to do with his work as ranch foreman for a man named Landson. He's been tasked with overseeing the cutting of hay on a vast expanse of what may or may not be Crown land to the east of the Alberta foothills. Y.D., a neighbouring rancher, has had the very same idea, and so there is conflict. From the start, Grant comes off as a polite, level-headed gentleman. Frank Transley, Y.D.'s foreman, comes off nearly as well.

Standing in the wings is Zen, Y.D.'s twenty-year-old daughter. She is a minor character at first, but is soon elevated to the main stage through unwanted attention from George Dranzk, one of her father's hired hands. 

An impulsive idiot, Dranzk has the idea to set Landson's bails alight so as to win Y.D.'s favour... and with it Zen's hand. The fire spreads quickly, threatening both harvests as both Y.D.'s team and Landson's try to bring it under control.

The novel's most dramatic scene unfolds away from the inferno. Zen rides into the hills so as to warn a local farming family. On her return, she has the misfortune of encountering Dranzk. He tries to force himself upon Zen, and both end up in a river, struggling until the former can struggle no more:

Her hand reached the lash. With a quick motion of the arm, such as is given in throwing a rope, she had looped it once around his neck. Then, pulling the lash violently, she fought herself out of his grip. He clutched at her wildly, but could reach only some stray locks of her brown hair which had broken loose and were floating on the water.
   She saw his eyes grow round and big and horrified; saw his mouth open and refuse to close; heard strange little gurgles and chokings. But she did not let go.
   "When you insulted me this morning I promised to settle with you; I did not expect to have the chance so soon."
   His head had gone under water.... Suddenly she realized that he was drowning. She let go of the thong, clutched her horse's tail, and was pulled quickly ashore.
Here Stead touches the cape of Alberta Gothic, yet Dennison Grant is not a gothic tale; it is a message novel, a story of ideas and ideals embodied in the titular character. In his second coming, Grant happens upon Zen as fire threatens. The pair find refuge on a stoney hilltop overlooking threads of golden flame under the night sky.

The Bookman, Spring 1921
Here Grant reveals himself to both Zen and the reader as an Easterner, the eldest of two sons born to a man with a rough parcel of land made valuable by the growth of a city and ravenous developers. Papa Grant used his windfall to found a brokerage firm, thus turning the money into even more money. This was not for Dennison, which is why the name of the family firm is Grant and Son, not Grant and Sons.  

Dennison Grant came west where the work is physical, yet at the core of his being he's a thinking man of "peculiar notions." Grant shares these with Zen as a full moon arcs slowly overhead:
"I have observed," he said, "that poor people worry over what they haven't got, and rich people worry over what they have. It is my disposition not to worry over anything. You said that money is power. That is one of its deceits. It offers a man power, but in reality it makes him its slave. It enchains him for life; I have seen it in too many cases — I am not mistaken. As for opening up a wider life, what wider life could there be than this which I — which you and I — are living."
Listening in, it sounds like the worst of first dates with Grant talking only about himself. This is Stead's failing; the author doesn't recognize that his audience knows Zen's backstory while Grant does not. And yet, it somehow works. This reader came away fully convinced that the two were taken with one another. 

Blame it on the moon.

As depicted on the Hodder & Stoughton jacket, Zen does fall asleep, but this is the result of exhaustion. It's not every day a young woman escapes a prairie fire and kills a man. 

My copy of Dennison Grant has no dust jacket, but I don't think I'm missing much. The best image I've found comes from an advert in the 18 November 1920 edition of the Calgary Herald-Journal:

Dennison Grant is indeed an "intensely human, interesting, worth-while story of men and women as big of spirit as the big out-of-doors in which they live."

Zen is no anomaly. The women in Denison Grant are invariably intelligent and independent. Y.D.'s right cheek bears a scar from a branding iron wielded by a young woman in defence of her father. He later married that same young woman, who in turn bore and raised Zen. Another strong woman, a city girl named Phyllis Bruce, is in Grant's future.

"It's [sic] action centres largely in the West, in Calgary and the Foothills" is amusing. No scenes are set in Calgary or any other western city for that matter. In fact, Calgary is not mentioned at all, except as "the principal cow-town of the foothill country."

A good eighty pages take place in an unnamed eastern city on a lake (read: Toronto), to which Grant returns after his father and brother are killed in an automobile accident. Of a sudden, a man who rejects accepted notions of unearned wealth, finds himself with something between six or eight million dollars.

What is he to do? 

I will not spoil things.

Dennison Grant is not for everyone. I recommend it to those interested in post-Great War Canada. This Montrealer, the son of a Calgarian, was fascinated by the preconceptions expressed by Westerners toward Easterners and vice versa. I had no idea they stretched back so far. 

Grant expresses his ideas, even though he knows they are not fully formed. He's thinking aloud... after saving Zen, before Y.D., when hiring a lawyer, and during what I'd taken to be a date at a fancy restaurant with Phyllis Bruce. Forget my disappointment, just imagine hers! 

It can be tiresome, but no more so than any message novel. Dennison Grant is to Stead what John Galt is to Ayn Rand.

The Russian émigré and Social Security recipient would've hated Dennison Grant, which makes me like it all the more.

Object and Access: A bulky hardcover, typical of its time, I can't for the life of me remember just when or where it was purchased. I have no idea how much I paid, but it could not have been more than two dollars. Evidence suggests that it once belonged to one James Rutherford, whose signature graces the front free paper. Over fifty James Rutherfords are listed in the 1921 census.

I see no evidence that the Musson and Hodder & Stoughton editions enjoyed more than one printing. That said, H&S did reissue the book in 1924 as Zen of the Y.D.: A Tale of the Foothills. That same year, it was serialized under the same title in the Ottawa Citizen.

At the time of this writing, one copy of the Musson edition (sans jacket) listed for sale at US$17.00. Neither H&S edition is in sight.

Thankfully, it can be read online here at the Internet Archive. 

25 March 2024

Here's to Absent Chums

The Missing Chums
Franklin W. Dixon [Leslie McFarlane]
New York: Grosset & Dunlop, [c. 1960]
214 pages

The fourth Hardy Boys book, I read The Missing Chums for the title alone. "Chums" is so dated a word that I'm not sure I've ever written it before. The novel features characters with names like "Biff" and "Slim," teenage boys who spend rainy days in a barn walking on their hands and practicing their boxing skills. They might take to the trapeze, as does Jerry Gilroy, performing something known as "skinning the cat":

As every boy knows, ‘‘skinning the cat" is an acrobatic feat that does not necessarily embrace cruelty to animals. 
This boy knew nothing about skinning the cat, and isn't sure what to make of the reassurance that it "does not necessarily embrace cruelty to animals [emphasis mine]."

Jerry's attempt at skinning the cat is interrupted by a swat on the butt administered by Chet Morton. Jerry returns the favour after using a sash window to restrain Chet:

Read nothing into this.

Biff, Slim, Jerry, and Chet are but four of the Hardys' chums; Phil Cohen and Tony Prito, the latter owning a motorboat boat called the Napoli, round out their number. As every boy knows, Frank and Joe Hardy have a motorboat of their own, the Sleuth, which they purchased with reward money received in solving The Tower Treasure mystery. Biff Hooper doesn't have a motorboat himself, but his father does. Named the Envoy, it was purchased not long ago, which may explain the chum's ineptitude in piloting the craft. 

Grossett & Dunlop, 1944
This novel is in many ways a nautical adventure, with Biff and Chet as the titular chums. The former had long dreamed of "motorboating along the coast," and now has his chance. The Hardy boys would like to join them, but their father, "internationally famous detective" Fenton Hardy, is about to leave town and Mrs Hardy cannot be alone. Mr Hardy is on the trail of bank robber Baldy Turk who he believes to be in Chicago, the "thieves' paradise." 

Biff and Chet receive a nice send-off from Frank, Joe, and the rest of the chums. Iola Morton and Callie Shaw are also present, but they're girls, not chums. As the Sleuth and Napoli escort the Envoy towards open water a thunderstorm rolls in. The Sleuth and Napoli return to port, while the Envoy motors on into the Atlantic Ocean.

Have I mentioned Biff's incompetence? It's a matter of comedy in the novel's earliest pages, but by the end of the first chapter he's on course to collide with two sailboats.

The second chapter begins with Frank grabbing the wheel, thus averting loss of life. "Thanks," Biff says, "I'd have never got out of that mess if you hadn't taken the wheel. I was so rattled that I didn't know what to do." Frank is magnanimous: "After you've run the boat a few more weeks you'll get so used to it that it'll be second nature to you."

A few more weeks do not pass.

A day or two later, the Envoy is on its way, heading into a storm that saw more seasoned seaman like Frank Hardy and Tony Prito return to the shelter of the port.

There's some concern about Biff and Chet, which is elevated when a promised postcard fails to arrive. The Hardy boys would like to head out in the Sleuth to see what they can find, but what of mother?

Grossett & Dunlop, 1928
Hartley boy L.P. once noted: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Ignoring the obvious – that The Missing Chums is set in a foreign country – the novel was written nearly one hundred years ago. Was this really a time in which an intelligent, able-bodied middle-aged woman could not take care of herself? Would parents of missing children really let days go by before alerting authorities? Children who were last seen heading out into the Atlantic? During a violent thunderstorm? In a motorboat piloted by a novice? Would those same parents have relied on their children's chums to find them, even if those chums were the Hardy boys?

Beginning in 1959, the thirty-eight earliest Hardy Boys titles underwent extensive revisions so as to bring them up to date. No more roadsters. Ethnic stereotypes were toned down.

I've found no evidence that Republican politicians were at all concerned. 

Revisions to The Missing Chums were done in 1962 by James Buechler. They are more radical than most in that the plot is done away with entirely. I won't go into details for fear of spoiling it for readers of either version. What I find most interesting is that no one thought to replace the title, which seems so... well, it seems foreign to me. And yet, Grossett and Dunlop chose to maintain it, and continues to so do today.

Why not The Missing Friends? Was "chum" still so common in 1962?

I can't say. I pretty much missed the first eight months of that year.

Favourite sentence:

“I’ll say!’’ Iola replied, slangily.

Favourite exchange:

"Just a little while before they went on their trip I was talking to Chet and Biff and I remember that Biff said he had always wanted to visit Blacksnake Island.’’
   "Blacksnake Island!’’ exclaimed Frank. “That’s the place that is overrun with big blacksnakes, isn’t it?"

Fun fact: The word "chum" appears in the text fifty-one  times, roughly once every four pages. "Hardy boys" appears even more frequently – a total of eighty-eight times – which I'm supposing has everything to do with branding. And so, my second favourite exchange:

Trivia: In 1982, Armada, which owned the paperback rights to the Hardy Boys books in the UK, retitled the adventure The Mystery of the Missing Friends.     

Object and Access:
An unattractive, cheaply produced hardcover lacking dustjacket, I purchased my copy for one dollar twelve years ago in London, Ontario. The previous books in its "HARDY BOYS Mystery Stories" list suggests it was published in or about 1960. Its frontispiece is a bit of a spoiler.

As I write this, the most expensive copy of The Missing Chums listed online is going for US$950.

It is not a first edition.

In 1960 Dutch publisher Van Goor Zonen gave us De verdwenen vrienden (left) based on McFarlane's text. The jacket illustration, by the late Dutch artist Rudy van Giffen (1929-2005), is the best I've seen. It's easy to imagine it being used today.

There have been other translations 
– Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese –  but I'm fairly certain all are of the Buechler rewrite.

18 March 2024

Quick! To the Customs House!

Montreal Customs House, c. 1916

I've been on something of a Constance Beresford-Howe kick this past week, all to do with her 1947 novel Of This Day's Long Journey. It's a remarkable achievement from a young woman who was otherwise working on her MA and PhD. What struck most was the maturity of voice. Written by a twenty-four-old academic, it concerns a twenty-four-year-old academic, yet seems in no way autobiographical. Believe me, I've tried to find some sort of link between Constance Beresford-Howe and her heroine Cameron Brant; my first book, Character Parts, dealt with characters modelled on real people.

One resource I used in my search is Google's increasingly unstable, moribund News Archive.  

As might be expected, clicking "Petite, Pretty, Young Writer Teaches Mcgill Niaht School" brought me to this, in which I learned that the novelist was more than a mere cutie pie:

Beresford-Howe taught "The Art of Shorter Fiction;" Somerset Maugham's "Rain" and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, published just the previous year, were amongst the works discussed. One lecture was titled "Bad Fiction and How to Recognize It."

According to the article, the petite, pretty, young successful novelist was at the time completing her most ambitious project, "Drink Thy Wine With Joy," a historical novel inspired by a 16th-century English divorce. I recognized it as 1955's My Lady Greensleeves:

This Google News Archive link was even more interesting. 

'Facts Tout' brings to mind 'Bonjour Hi!' It's the very thing to get Premier François Legault's knickers in a twist. 

Speaking of knickers, are you not intrigued by "Panties Customs Dust?" I was! Clicking on the link brought some disappointment:

I shouldn't complain because columnist Harriet Hill's focus is Beresford-Howe's first, unpublished novel. In publicity material, publisher Dodd, Mead had teased of this bit of juvenilia, but provided few details. This is the most I've ever read about the manuscript:

Where is "Gillian" today? By the time the manuscript would have landed there, the eight-story Customs House had grown to take over an entire city block. It's occupied today by the Canada Border Services Agency, the descendant of the Department of Customs and Excise. I like to think that "Gillian" is somewhere in that building, perhaps close by seized copies of The Temple of Pederasty and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

Who knows? Given Pierre Poilievre's announced intention to give away six thousand federal buildings to developers, it might just turn up in a dumpster on rue Normand.

11 March 2024

Destination: Montreal

Of This Day's Journey
Constance Beresford-Howe
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1947
240 pages

A second novel, Of This Day's Journey followed the author's debut by a little over a year, during which she earned her MA and had begun work on a PhD. Beresford-Howe was all of twenty-four years old when it was published.

Camilla "Cam" Brant, the novel's protagonist, is also all of twenty-four. The earliest pages take place as she's preparing to leave Blake University, somewhere in New England, for her Montreal home. Cam had been hired a year earlier as a seasonal lecturer in English and has been living with the wonderfully-named Olive Pymson, spinster secretary to Andrew Cameron, Blake's tall, lanky president.

Of This Day's Journey is divided into three parts – Morning, Afternoon, Evening – each featuring a different narrator; plain Miss Pymson, the most endearing and attractive, is the first. It was quite unlike her to open up her home to Cam, but she'd been taken by a sudden urge to shake up her life. The two hit it off from their first meeting, an unlikely duo with a shared taste for dry humour.

The second part, Afternoon, is told by Cam herself. The shift in perspective is an eye-opener. For example, Job Laurence, whom Olive had thought a good match for her new housemate is seen with fresh, younger eyes as a physically unattractive man who is much older than herself. It's to Beresford-Howe's credit, I think, that Cam's narration is slightly less engaging. She is, after all, a different person. In this middle part we learn that Cam's reason for leaving Blake has to do with her love for the older – but not Job Laurence old – Andrew Cameron. This should not come as a surprise to the reader; in Morning, Miss Pymson provided enough hints. The front flap of Dodd, Mead's dust jacket isn't nearly so subtle.

The Gazette,
10 May 1947
Lastly, in Evening, we have Andrew – not as seen by Olive Plymson or Cam Brant – rather as how he is: a man exhausted by obligation and responsibility. He abandoned his academic pursuits and interests in order to steer Blake, an institution co-founded by one of his great-grandfathers. Homelife centres on care for his once-adulterous wife Marny. Her series of affairs was brought to an abrupt end by a car accident. Who knows whether the child she was carrying – the child she lost – was Andrew's. Now confined to a wheelchair, Marny refuses to leave the house, and so her husband must attend functions stag... functions also attended by Cam.

The only possible happy ending to such a scenario would have Marny succumb to her infirmity, thus freeing Andrew to be with Cam. But Beresford-Howe, all of twenty-four, was already too good a writer for such contrivance. Of This Day's Journey is far superior to her debut, The Unreasoned Heart (1946).

Beresford-Howe's third novel, The Invisible Gate, was published the month she turned twenty-seven. She'd almost completed her PhD by that point. Given her trajectory, I'm betting it's the best of the three.

Object and Access: A hardcover bound in grey boards with uncredited dust jacket. I purchased my copy, the American first edition, five years ago from a Rochester, New York bookseller. Price: US$9.94 (w/ US$18.00 shipping).

A British edition was published in 1955 by Hammond & Hammond (above). There has never been a Canadian edition.

As of this writing, two copies are listed for sale online, the cheaper being a jacketless copy of the Hammond & Hammond being sold at £17.50. The other is an inscribed edition of the Dodd, Mead edition:

Hardcover. Condition: Near Fine. Dust Jacket Condition: Poor. 1st Edition. HARDCOVER W/dj; NF/poor, 240pp. SIGNED.inscribed by author ffep. Newspaper sad [sic] for this title laid in. First edition. Please email w/questions or to request picture(s); refer to our book inventory number.
Tempting, but at US$49.00, with a further US$53.00 for shipping, I'm taking a pass.

Related posts:

04 March 2024

Too Soon?

Son of a Meech: The Best Brian Mulroney Jokes
Mark Breslin, ed.
Toronto: Ballantine, 1991
113 pages

News of Brian Mulroney's death last Thursday did not hit hard. I was no admirer. As a young man, I dismissed Mulroney as Ronald Reagan Lite. Simplistic, but not wrong. In 1984, the year he led his party to the second greatest electoral victory in this country's history, I was distrustful and skeptical. It came as no surprise when his government began selling off Crown assets at Fire Sale prices.

The Mulroney government spanned the better part of my twenties. He hung onto power, forcing the game into overtime, only to leave the political arena when it became clear he could not score a third victory. Mulroney all but destroyed the Progressive Conservative Party, leaving Kim Campbell and Peter Mackay to ensure its end. 


As I say, I was no admirer, though I've come to recognize the man's achievements. He somehow managed to convince Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that Apartheid was wrong, which was no small feat. He wasn't quite as successful in pushing Reagan on acid rain, but he did get a treaty through with the first President Bush. Mulroney really was our "greenest prime minister," a title included in most of the obituaries.

That he holds it still, three decades after he stepped down as PM, is a sad commentary on his successors.

Son of a Meech
Andy Donato
Toronto: Key Porter, 1990
Son of a Meech is so obvious a pun that Breslin's book is the second to use it as a title. The Meech Lake Accord was Mulroney's greatest gambit, and his greatest defeat. I was against it at the time but have since changed my position. I won't go into my reasoning as it would add five thousand words to this post. I'd much rather focus on this collection of "The Best Brian Mulroney Jokes" because it anticipates the hate, homophobia, and misogyny spread by Ezra Levant, Jeff Ballingall's Proud pages, and the Conservative Party itself.

And so, a warning to the reader, I will be quoting from this book.

Let's begin with stand-up comedian Mark Breslin's brief introduction, in which he describes how Son of a Meech was born:
After each show, members of the audience would approach me with jokes about [Mulroney] – vicious, mean, brutal – my kind of jokes. They weren't, as my literary sensei Jack Kapiica observed, the usual anti-government barbs, but personal ad hominem attacks on the man's most private self. These jokes stepped over the line of good taste, and I got interested.
Are these amongst the jokes he collected? 
Canadians no longer believe in the theory of trickle-down economics.
   Mulroney's trickled down on them long enough.

Not that the prime minister is crooked...
   But last week he swallowed a nail and it came out a corkscrew.
Perhaps not. They don't step over the line.

Variations of the trickle-down economics joke can be traced back to Reagan's first term. The corkscrew joke has iits origins in an insult General Sir Gerald Templer delivered to Lord Mountbatten.

The most interesting part of Breslin's introduction suggests that the jokes provided by his fans weren't quite so numerous as he claims:
The collection got bigger, so I turned to Martin Waxman for help. He researched volumes of comedy material of all eras for jokes about despots and cruel or incompetent leaders. Sad to say, they fit.
And so, we get these:
Did you hear the new Mulroney stamp has had to be recalled?
   People kept spitting on the wrong side.

What's the difference between the prime minister and yogurt?
   Yogurt has culture.

Why would Mulroney never be eaten by cannibals?
   Because he's too hard to swallow.

What do you call an Irish Canadian with half a brain?
   Mr. Prime Minister.
Take a tired old joke, insert a reference to Mulroney, and you're pretty much done, but not always. This one was made contemporary with a reference to yuppies:
What's the only mediocre product yuppies will buy?
   Brian Mulroney.
This one proved too difficult to update:
What's the difference between Howdy Doody and Prime Minister Mulroney?
   You can't see Mulroney's strings.
There are even a couple of blonde jokes:
How do you make Brian Mulroney laugh on Monday?
   Tell him a joke on Friday.

Looking to bolster his stodgy image, the P.M. spent the night at a rock club. And not wanting to be perceived as a square, he even snorted Sweet and Low. 
   He thought it was Diet Coke.

Tame stuff, lame stuff, these can't be the "vicious, mean, brutal jokes" Breslin says he likes.

I've given an imprecise depiction of this book's content, choosing to not share jokes involving bestiality or golden showers. There's also a fair amount of racist and homophobic writing, the most extreme being a joke that combines the two and involves the PM receiving a black coffee enema. I won't be sharing it either, but because I feel there should be at least one example of Breslin's vicious, mean, brutal jokes, I present this:
What's the difference between Rock Hudson and Brian Mulroney?
   Brian's aides have not killed him yet.
Mark Breslin's book is unlike earlier Canadian political humour books. It has little in common with Sex and the Single Prime Minister, The Naked Prime Minister, I Never Promised You a Rose GardenP.E.T., or even Andrew Donato's Son of a Meech, which seem gentle ribbing in comparison. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its treatment of the prime minister's wife, Mila Mulroney, to whom Breslin dedicates the book.

Of the dozens of jokes in which she figures, this is the most tame:
Over dessert at 24 Sussex, Mulroney whispered to Mila, "Drinking makes you absolutely gorgeous."
   "I don't drink," Mila replied.
   "Yes, but I do."
The others feature fellatio, anal sex, adultery, and descriptions of a variety of sexual positions. Plumbers feature in four of them. 'The Unity Issue,' eighth of the book's ten sections, focusses exclusively on Brian and Mila Mulroney's sex life.

Mark Breslin was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2017.

Was Brian Mulroney Canada's worst prime minister as Breslin claims? Of course not. The most recent Maclean's ranking had him in eighth spot, just below Jean Chrétien, which seemed about right. But then I remembered that Mulroney accepted bribes and was a tax cheat. How about we place him in the very middle, just below eleventh place John Diefenbaker, but above Alexander Mackenzie.

Seems more than fair.

Is Breslin's Canada's worst joke book?

Beyond a doubt.

Martin Brian Mulroney
20 March 1939, Baie Comeau, Quebec
29 February 2024, Palm Beech, Florida


Object and Access: A slim mass market paperback, I found my copy two years ago in a Kemptville, Ontario thrift store. Price: $1.00.

Son of a Meech is held by seven Canadian libraries, the most surprising being the Legislative Library of British Columbia. St Francis-Xavier University, Brian Mulroney's alma mater, does not have a copy. 

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19 February 2024

My Mistake in Reading Richardson

Hardscrabble; or, The Fall of Chicago
Major [John] Richardson
New York: Pollard & Moss, 1888
113 pages

A forgotten novel about forgotten bloodshed, Hardscrabble isn't about the fall of Chicago because at the time there was no Chicago. It does concern an April 1812 assault on a farm, Hardscrabble, which was located south of the South Branch of the Chicago River. Winnebago warriors killed two men, while two others escaped.

And so the fiction begins. In Richardson's imaginings, the farm belongs to a man named Heywood, who "by dint of mere exertion and industry" amassed a small fortune in the wilds of Kentucky. He then moved on to South Carolina, where he took as his wife a woman with an even greater fortune. After that, it was back to the Bluegrass State, where he killed a man just to watch him die.

I jest.

Heywood kills a lawyer from a prominent family in a duel – no cause of contretemps given – and then fearing retribution, flees west with his wife and daughter. In the Territory of Illinois they establish two homes, the nicer being a charming cottage across the river from Fort Dearborn. The other dwelling is, of course, the farmhouse at Hardscrabble.

News of the attack on the farm is carried by a hired hand, but Captain Headley, fearing an attack on the stockade, decides against sending his men. This puts him at odds with "high-spirited Southerner" Ensign Harry Ronayne, who is in love with Heywood's daughter Maria. The smitten man disguises himself as a drunken Pottawattamie so as to be ejected from the fort and sets out to rescue the man he hopes will be his future father-in-law.

As in many a historical novel, romance trumps fact. Hardscrabble existed, but it belonged to men named Russell and Lee, neither of whom were present at the time of the killing. Heywood, his wife, and his daughter are fictions. Ensign Ronayne too is a fiction, as is Captain Headley, though a strong argument may be made that the latter is modelled on Captain Nathan Heald, who was from 1810 to 1812 Fort Dearborn's commander.

This student of the War of 1812 expected Fort Dearborn to fall – something to do with the title, you understand – but this never happens. I suggest nothing ribald in writing that the climax comes during the July 4, 1812 wedding of Maria Heywood and Ensign Ronayne. I won't spoil anything either, except to say that there is strong implication that another man's love for Maria will lead to Fort Dearborn's destruction.

The ending is abrupt, as if Hardscrabble, like Richard Rohmer's Ultimatum, is the first half of a longer novel. Sure enough, Wau-nan-gee; or, The Massacre of Chicago, followed its publication. 

I've not read it, and likely never will.

Clearly, Hardscrabble is not the place to start in on Richardson. I read it only because I happened upon a copy being sold for a dollar and had long been intimidated by Wacousta. Richardson's big book in more ways than one, my Carleton University Press Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts edition amounts to 688 dense pages. The Canadian Brothers, its sequel, is very nearly as long. Hardscrabble seemed much more manageable.

My judgement is no doubt influenced by irritation over its bait and switch title. While the romantic dialogue between Maria and Ronayne is strained, Hardscrabble is well written. At the very least, it's interesting as a novel of the months leading up to the War of 1812 written by a man who had lived through the conflict. And so, I'm willing to read more Richardson.


No, I'm more interested in his risqué The Monk Knight of St. John, which is set during the Crusades and features a countess Richardson scholar David Richard Beasley refers to as a "Fatal Woman."

Now, if I can only find a copy for a dollar.

At this early period of civilization, in these remote countries, there was little distinction of rank between the master and the man – the employer and the employed. Indeed the one was distinguished from the other only by the instructions given and received, in regard to certain services to be performed. They labored together – took their meals together – generally smoked together – drank together – conversed together, and if they did not absolutely sleep together, often reposed in the same room.

Object and Access: A cheap, very delicate paperbound book. Mine is falling apart, revealing a glue remarkably similar in colour to that used on the front cover. It was was purchased five years ago.

The novel first appeared serialized in Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art (February - July, 1850). It was first published in book form in 1854 by DeWitt & Davenport, two years after Richardson's death. My 1888 Pollard & Moss edition appears to have been the last.

As I write this, no copies of the first edition are listed for sale online, though two American booksellers are offering hardcover copies – in variant bindings – of the 1888 Pollard & Moss edition. At US$150.00 and US$159.50 respectively, War of 1812 obsessives may find them tempting.

You're out there, right?

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