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 the 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.

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  1. Thank you! A fascinating find for 1937!

    1. Thank you. Must admit that I did hesitate in choosing this book because I like to focus on the obscure. The novel was well-known by mother's generation of Canadians. Sadly, today it seems Callaghan is all but forgotten. Bookish types excepted, of course!

  2. Oo fascinating. And I do love it when an author brazenly lies about a story being based on real people - the most brazen I've read was F. Tennyson Jesse lying about A Pin To See The Peepshow.

    1. Moi aussi, Simon. My first book Character Parts: Who's Really Who in CanLit (Knopf Canada, 2003) focussed in the people who had inspired characters in Canadian literature. You'll be pleased to note that it includes some Leacock creations. What I found it amusing that so many writers denied their obvious inspirations. I expect this had something to do with threat of lawsuit, but I became certain that ego also played a part.