My other career...
I was talking to a friend about mystery novels and happened to mention that I had written one, Precious, what I call a parodic detective novel. I sent her a copy and yesterday she wrote: “Wow! I love Precious.” This intrigued me. I wondered what, indeed, she had read. It was so long ago that I no longer remembered the novel in detail, though I can surely remember writing it. So last night I pulled it off the shelf and started reading. It was a deep pleasure, partly because it was like meeting afresh that younger version of myself, almost a stranger, but smart and likeable, and partly because it brought back such lively memories from the years I spent as a newspaperman, drifting around the country as a young man, immersed in the world as such. I think of newspapers as one of my romantic, “other” careers. Before newspapers, I had been a philosophy lecturer at the University of New Brunswick. When I quit teaching and got a job at the Evening Times-Globe in Saint John, I called it “throwing myself into the eschatological matrix.” After that, I had stints at the Peterborough Examiner, then the great old Montreal Star, and finally the Star-Phoenix in Saskatoon. I was a five-year journeyman newspaperman, jack of all trades, and a union man, and very proud of it.
Precious was my creative thesis at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I had written two unpublishable novels, ambitious and chaotic. I decided to settle down and write something simple. I thought of Precious as my novel on training wheels. I had already steeped myself in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. I thought I understood the genre, and I thought I could teach myself the nuts and bolts of novel writing (atmosphere, how to get characters in and out of scenes, dialogue, etc.) while leaving the overall structure to formula. There is a certain off-the-rack aspect to detective novels. You have to have a body at the front and a recognition at the end. In between you have two plots jamming together, the detection plot (the detective moving toward the murderer) and the evasion plot (the murderer trying to get away from the detective). Ross Macdonald had popularized the Freudian detective plot variation (which he learned from Chandler): the murder is solved by discovering an earlier concealed murder, usually a couple of decades in the past. This makes the detective, always an ascetic moral force, a kind of therapist, wounded himself, healing the public psyche by revealing the trauma of repressed violence. In this sense, all detective novels are allegorical, rituals of atonement and reconstruction in the face of anti-social horror. My novel is comic and parodic because I can’t take anything seriously, it seems. The hero is a down-at-heel, alcoholic newspaperman, the women’s page editor (yes, they once had women’s pages) at a down-at-heel daily called the Star-Leader —
It was a newsroom like any other newsroom, a little older, a little scruffier: scuffed tiles, banks of vinyl-topped desks, the chatter of aging typewriters, telephones ringing, the low buzz of conversation, and the suck and whoosh of pneumatic tubes. Along the length of the window ledge there were stacks of yellowing Star-Leaders, empty Styrofoam cups, cobwebs, and curled photographs. In one corner an office had been partitioned off for the sports department. Two doors led through the side wall to the composing room and the morgue.
— in a fairly typical down-at-heel Ontario branch plant town called Ockenden (based on my experiences at Saint John and Peterborough).
It seemed to me that I had spent a lifetime, more or less, in towns just like Ockenden, changing buses to get to other towns.
A small branch-plant city of about forty-five thousand on the shoreline of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Kingston, it boasted a decayed waterfront that hadn’t seen significant shipping since the 1890s, a ponderous close-built Victorian midtown, and a helter-skelter collection of brick or stucco subdivisions. At the ragged urban fringes there rose grey low buildings that housed a cable factory, a tractor assembly plant, a foundry, a knitting mill, and the regional warehouse for a grocery store chain, all owned by American conglomerates.
Approaching by road, you threaded rows of cut-rate gas stations, fast-food outlets, cheap motels, craft stores, and shopping malls surrounded by acres of parking lot. In the centre of town there was a bandana-sized park where pigeons disported between the War of 1812 cannon and a blue and gilt bandstand. Looking hopelessly out of place against the aged sedateness of its backdrop, a chamber of commerce banner loudly proclaimed Ockenden’s annual winter carnival, complete with snowmobile races on the lake and an ice-fishing derby. From either end of the green space, the Anglican and Baptist churches glared at each other through a lattice of bare maple trees, rubbing shoulders with a railway hotel, a restaurant called the Ritz, a tavern called the American House, an art gallery, and the Star-Leader.
The newspaper occupied a squat two-storey building cheerfully decorated with patterns of brickwork in two tones of grey. From the upper floor, suspended over the sidewalk, hung a combination clock-thermometer advertising a local insurance agent who shared the office space. Neither device was working the next day when I arrived in Ockenden, or any other day for that matter. The time read 7:18, the temperature was eighty-two degrees.
You can see me working hard here to establish tone. The American House was a bar in Peterborough. The Ritz, the pigeons, and the bandstand were on King Square in Saint John. (But, really, totally, everything in the novel is made up.)
I had a murder tucked away in my notebooks. I had covered it as a reporter at the Peterborough Examiner, an elderly woman killed in her home just outside of town. Still unsolved to this day. I drove out to the house, talked to the police. Then they brought in a tracker dog, which I tracked (oh, I was young and enthusiastic) through the mud. I am in the novel, up to a point, in the character of Blythe Ashcroft, the hero’s naive and inept cub-reporter sidekick. The hero is Moss Elliot, aka Precious. He is based on a man I worked with at the Montreal Star, Barry Johnson, now sadly dead, but once extremely alive. When we met, he was on a bit of a downslope, but he had been a pilot in the RCAF, a foreign correspondent, and an actor in European cinema. After I left the Star, we lost touch, and then the Star folded and Barry disappeared, only to be found on Skid Row in Toronto by another newspaper buddy, Mal Aird, who helped get him back on his feet. Eventually, Mal arranged a reunion of sorts, the three of us meeting at the old Spadina Tavern, where I presented Barry with a copy of the book, the literary version of himself. Much later, after he died, I got to know his widow in Vancouver. He had kept that copy of Precious right up to the end.
The book itself was written out of a considerable nostalgia for a career I knew I was never going to return to. I loved newspapers in a way I will never love writing itself or anything else I have ever done to make money. Newspapers were my first real step into self-creation. I had lived my life before that in a series of cocoons. The farm, school, academia. Newspapers gave me a personna to overcome my shyness and an entry into the clatter of modern life, from criminal courts to provincial and municipal politics to sports (yes, I was a sports editor and commentator). I met John Diefenbaker, who let me heft Sir Wilfred Laurier’s gold-knobbed cane, and consorted with the super-rich Irvings at art gala openings. I once interviewed Dan Ross, one of the world’s most prolific novelists, on the occasion of the publication of his 100th novel. Best of all were the people I worked with, from the young believers like myself (such gangs of smart, enthusiastic, idealistic men and women) to the sodden old-timers, cynical and dyspeptic veterans, wise and funny. All this in a kind of lunar (so much of the work was done at night) fluorescent glow, accompanied by the smell of pizza and beer. In Montreal, we had lunch around 3 a.m. at a bar across the street. Mornings, after we put the paper to bed, we’d head back to the bar, around 8 a.m. (I recall heading home on the bus around 11 in the morning, pleasantly drunk out of my mind, or once hiking all the way back to NDG in the middle of the night in a snowstorm, not a single car moving, just because it was so beautiful.)
Those days were fast fading, even as I came on the scene. I was working at the Montreal Star the night it changed from hot type to cold type, a tectonic shift that went barely noticed in the outer world. At the Peterborough Examiner, they still had linotype machines and lead pigs and grizzled, irritable printers who locked the rows of letters on the stone. I loved the smell of ink and hot lead. And I worked at the the Star-Phoenix, where I copyedited stories and designed pages on a computer. And in the composing room, young barely trained women did paste up where once cranky old union men had slung lead.
I did date one of the paste up women, she appears in my story “Woman Gored by Bison Lives.” So you see, I wasn’t too, too flurried about all these changes at the time. The hero of my story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” is a newspaperman, working at the Star-Phoenix, also in the process of leaving newspapers behind. “The Obituary Writer” is about a young reporter at the newspaper in Saint John. I liked using newspapers as a narrative focus, as I say, an entry into the world. And all the time I was working in newspapers, I was also writing fiction. I got my first publishing acceptance sitting at my desk in the newsroom in Peterborough. In Saint John, I used to let the city editor, Dorothy Dearborn, herself a published novelist, read my drafts.
Precious, especially in the opening chapters, is full of this nostalgia. It’s my farewell to newspapers. Here is Precious, explaining his childhood infatuation.
The pressmen were replating for a second edition when I pushed through the last fire door into the double-storey cavern that housed the Star-Leader printing plant. The steel floor shook; the air was thick and sharp with the heavy throb of machinery, like the beating of a heart, and the acrid newspaper smells of oil, ink, and hot lead. For a moment or two I gazed in awe at the intricate pile of cogs and wheels and giant cylinders like a kid in a museum staring at his first dinosaur skeleton.
The first press I had ever seen was an ancient creaking Campbell flatbed that crowded the tiny shop at the back of my Uncle Dorsey Elliot’s house. Dorsey was a stereotypical hack newsman; his blood was eighty proof, his family life zero. That his wife had left him was history; no one ever talked about it except Dorsey when he was drunk and then he talked too much. I could never tell whether he missed her or wanted to kill her.
In 1945, for reasons of economy, my mother and I moved in with Uncle Dorsey, soon after my father and his Hurricane were shot down over the Netherlands. Neither of them seemed much enamoured of the arrangement. My mother’s name was Nicolle, although everyone called her Nickel. She was a black-clad proto-beatnik who made her living painting portraits at a hundred dollars a shot. Uncle Dorsey published the local weekly, a chronic money-loser known affectionately by its subscribers as the Ameliasburg Time and Distemper. Nickel spent so much time at the Parmesan Bar and Grill, the town night spot, that she made a serious attempt to have the bar legally designated as the final repository for her ashes. Dorsey did all his drinking in his office with a mangy misanthropic golden retriever bitch called Adolph. Often Mother and Dorsey would go for days without saying a word, stumping around the house lost in their separate worlds, like the proverbial ships that pass in the night.
Yet that little newspaper and the cluttered printing shop enchanted me: the holy of holies where the silent press stood like an altar, its black rollers as high as my head, the stern cabinets with their neat gunmetal type trays, the Ludlow machine for casting heads, the small galley press with a brayer for inking, bales of newsprint, drums of ink, cubbyholes along the walls for column rules, space slugs, and stand-up lines, and the smooth-surfaced stone, always mysteriously cool. As a boy I rummaged there for hours, mixing the fonts, printing messages on bits of scrap, carving lead pigs, watching my uncle’s hands flutter over his composing stick.
What I like about this passage is its attention to detail. Newspapers were a world of things, machines with names, objects to be handled, and precise traditions. You don’t think about that these days. It was a world with romance and an ethical torque; we were all trying to reveal truths, right wrongs. (Many of us, too, were writing novels.) I have never had such camaraderie, nor sense of common purpose.
I miss it.