Sunday, November 02, 2003

Clark Kent

Who wouldn't like to have been Ernest Hemingway or Morley Callaghan?

As a young man, I gave it a shot, though my performance at Hemingway's (and Morley's) old home, The Toronto Star, was something less than stellar.

Oh sure, it was fun to have been the Big Man On Campus at Ryerson, to already have had a war background (refugee capacity), to have had stories published in the college's little magazines. But this was The Star. The Big Leagues. The Star was home base at different times to the likes of Hemingway and Callaghan and later to Star greats like Ralph Allen, Nathan Cohen, Robert Fulford.

Hey c'mon now, I was just an anglicized Ukrainian, long ago dropped as an infant like a doomed fighter pilot into the rye where my mother was inconvenienced to have me just ahead of advancing fascists.

My waking memories were confinement, noise, dislocation, starvation, all the good stuff that usually hammers out a writer. Thank God for the unhappy childhood!

I ended up in Deep River, Ontario where I fought mosquitoes and a tough new language aided and abetted by Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead, Nicholas Gogol's Diary of a Madman and Dick and Jane which the teachers were now trying to impart on me.

I saved my sanity by reading the comic books.

Yes, Superman, the ultimate immigrant, Captain Marvel and Mary and the whole family, Wonder Woman, Batman and more.

But there was a transition coming, a transition to serious literature, a strange little character out of MAD #1.

Who from a minority group could not identify with Melvin Mole, this strange little apparition out of William Gaines' Humour in a Jugular Vein--Melvin Mole, file-toothed, rat-faced, pimply, whose sole (perhaps only) talent consisted ed of his ability to burrow with incredible talent underneath all obstacles, accompanying himself with obsessional mutterings: DIG! DIG! HAH! DIG! DIG! DIG!

The underground man. And when burrowing underwater, the talk balloons would have bubbles attached. GLIG! GLIG! HAH! GLIG! GLIG! GLIG!

Melvin tries to rob The Last National Bank, avoids the omniscient guards by incredible cunning and digging, at one point pulling out an automatic, which he discharges in all directions, yelling JOHN LAW! JOHN LAW! HAH! HEEH! HAH!....YOU'LL NEVER GET MELVIN MOLE...NEIN! NICHT! NEVER! Eventually, Melvin is dungeoned, and after many escapes (DIG! DIG! HAH! DIG! DIG! DIG!) redungeoned.

I developed a strange fascination with Melvin, this first nihilist, until years later it dawned on me that Kafka was born in a country just next door to my old Ukraine and there was a whole coterie of people out of my neck of the woods who were well acquainted with six-foot cockroaches and even strange space voyages. Stanislaw Lem, for example.

I sensed a tradition, but I was in the wrong country (and who wanted to be a Communist anyway?).

It dawned on me very early that there was much more to writing than just setting down words. The ideas (nightmares?) were non-verbal.

I set out on a scientific and paramilitary quest.

Good at physics, I trained as a pilot at the age of 17, blew it and ended up in ground crew, looking for Russians on a radar scope. It was becoming plain to me that I was not going to be the person I wanted to be, certainly not Top Gun.

Like many another displaced body of our war-affected time, I was looking for some sort of home. Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, which was serviceman-friendly, seemed to be the next place to go (I had already produced a really bad manuscript, and maybe Ryerson could teach me to write).

Ryerson did teach me to write. And it fleshed out all my confused MAD magazine reading. A man named Jack Jones was writing in Explorations Magazine that MAD was DADA IN THE DRUGSTORE, that Melvin Mole was a nihilist figure, and Marshall McLuhan was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to serious intellectual pursuits of what was then Toronto, the first truly modern urban civilization. The philosophy prof at Ryerson was doddering and incompetent, but wow, did he ever get me to meet some people! It was the best Western Thought course I could have taken.

Nevertheless, I knew in my heart of hearts that I should have been a Victoria College, where all the writers seem to have come from, but it was too late. I was already in my middle Twenties, and in any event, immigrant kids didn't usually end up at Victoria College. They went elsewhere.

I tried some SAT's, and though impressive, I wasn't going to be the next Canadian genius. I had to settle for the raffish, glamorous way of the newspaperman-novelist, the Hemingway route, the Callaghan route. Very early, I got to the Toronto Star.

It was certainly a thrill to take the same shining brass elevator upstairs to the newsroom where Beland Honderich "lived", my first memory of that great man now a sharp image of a well-suited, confident presence who undertook to empty the ashtray in front of my rewrite typewriter and call me a good fellow, and hopefully, a "Liberal" fellow. I became a Liberal at once.

And there was more. Where had I achieved the image of great competence? Did I get my sense of power out of good and great Beland Honderich or was it my early success (after hard military discipline) as an editor, short-story writer and poet?

Nevertheless, people were feeding me stuff. Pat Williams and Bill McVicar, all of them somehow assuring me that I would be a great writer. "Talent hides in the strangest places," Bill McVicar would assure, adding that it was a damn lonely profession nevertheless, but worth it.

Pat Williams, another reporter, would offer me good novels to read, as well as an autobiography of E. W. Scripps, the big American publisher immediately before William Randolph Hearst.

The real truth is that I was probably a token ethnic. Society was sane and generous enough not to produce another Melvin Mole, not a nihilist, but a novelist, albeit a newspaperman as well.

Bill McVicar, and Pat Williams, and Rae Corelli--all succeeded. And so did The Star.

Still, I have not made a serious dent into journalism, nor have I cracked the tough nut of Canlit, passe as it seems to be right now.

My first novel, THE BLACK ICON was handled like a piece of fish by Robert Fulford (who later told his secretary that I'd made all the mistakes a first novelist can make).

I have written some major stories for The Star, certainly Starweek Magazine when it still had some news space. I have had my own column. I have won small awards. I got my master's degree even though it was done just before the boom fell on Instituto Allende and the University of California withdrew its accreditarion. Yeah, good. Adequate.

And yet, forty-plus years later, I am still haunted by that strange, repulsive little character, Melvin Mole, a Man Out Of Control.

The immigrant isn't really at home anywhere, especially a nasty immigrant. The Star was smart and benevolent enough to have given me a home.

But I kept burrowing under buildings and water courses GLIG! HAH! GLIG! GLIG! GLIG!...JOHN LAW! JOHN LAW! HEEH! JOHN LAW!

Not all that competent as a newspaperman, and fiction being too hard for me, I became an artiste, angry young man, very near the brink of becoming Melvin Mole.

I was saved again by a good society and the Newmarket Era, owned by--you guessed it--The Toronto Star.

Somebody out there had faith in me, all the great Star people. I struggled and I faltered (was also fired a few times), and have finally produced four novels.

You have stayed with me so far in this space.

If you stick around, you'll be able to read all five.

The work (probably like yours) has to come out. Just has to.

Otherwise, it's the Underground Man, and look at what's going on in the world!

Thank you Ryerson. Thank you U. of T. Thank you Instituto Allende and writing instructor Tom Mayer.

And most of all, thank you Toronto Star.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

MAYBE, TARAS, JUST MAYBE

Of all the problems that beset the busy mind of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, none was so familiar or so strange as the problem of slavery. Taras Shevchenko wrote 160 years ago, while still a young slave to Russian masters, and yet his message, scrawled across time in bootleg packets may apply to our own time, and even here in my own time, in York Region.

Slavery is as old as mankind, from the first crafty Sumerian seizing an innocent beach boy or girl among the reeds to the slaves of Rome, so aptly described by the ancients, the sixteen-hour days, the blackened faces of the bakery boys, the scarred backs showing through the hemp, the fire-scarred visages, the stink and exposure of loincloths, everybody working, moving all the time, one eye out for the master's whip. As for African slaves, there is a galaxy of literature on this, right from the first seized Nubian in Egypt.

Recently, I visited a sweatshop in York Region. The sixteen-hour days, the blackened faces of the wage-slaves, the scars on hands and back from being caught in machinery, the grease-blackened visages, the exposed privates where the denim had ripped. Yet apparently the money is clean enough, or they wouldn't do it.

Poor Taras Shevchenko. Enslaved all his life, finally liberated because of his talents, enslaved again for excesses committed over his newfound freedom, like many another person today who just can't handle the mantle.

And yet he speaks to us over the tens of decades. The French have noticed him, and certainly do we.

An yet, how far have we come? Marx has come and gone. Those who had nothing to lose but their chains have found themselves again in chains, but tighter.

And who knows what strange shape hulks now again towards our region to set up hectare-sized sweatshops and call it a campus.

Monday, October 20, 2003

EPSILON SEMI-GENIUS

It was fun being a genius.

At the North York Mirror, where my novel was reviewed, and later at the college, people would say,"There goes Ivan the genius.
Anybody at the staff lounge could glance at me and Newman Wallis, dean of arts, and immediately deduce who the important person was.

My wife couldn't stand it all.

"Okay genius, here's a mop. The kitchen floor has a superhighway on it, full of cigarette ash from where you do your nightly pace after class, drinking cheap beer and all alone on top of that."

"But I am an artist, Martha."

"Artist isn't too far off from another word that starts with an a."

Sigh. Back to the "artists" we really are.

It all came from a slim novel that gained a large cult following. It dealt with survival and had a catchy title which somehow, years later, interfaced with the computer world: THE BLACK ICON.

The success was almost immediate. CBC interviews, offers from the Sunday Sun, an editorial stint with the late Martin Lynch, poet of typography and legend at The Globe and Mail, my own newspaper column in TOPIC (Bradford ON), a call from the college and I was on my way.

But then genius is something a family develops over many generations. I seemed to have had few antecedents.

Dropped in a potato field in Ukraine many moons back, I knew my first cousin was a potato and sensed for sure that my family crest could have contained two crossed hoes rampant on a potato field. What I was receiving was the fruit of Mr. Trudeau's idea of muliticulturalism, a kind of affirmative action fostered by a generous society. I knew I wouldn't last. And I didn't.

I picked up a whiskey habit and a pin-sized hooker who told me things I liked to hear.

"We have IQ's of 140," said Lana the Hooker, whose day job was systems analyst."We can create things, make them sing and dance. People hate us."

The future, as always, was the dead past and all its wise men. I was caught up in biblical wisdom. Suffice to say there was a snake in the garden with a punk haircut and if the garden was the marriage bed that's all you need to know.

It took a long time to fall, to meet kindly Wanda the Welfare Lady who said it takes a lot of detail to make up a life story, life being long and one slim book doesn't do it all. "There's more," she said.

She knew of what she spoke. The life story soon included me in somebody else's novel, a Damon-Runyon world of pimps, priests and police. How the hell did I get into THAT novel?

Someone was now writing me.

Never mind Margaret Atwood (with whom I sometimes communicate). I was now involved the THE HOOKER'S TALE and I wanted out.

I am finally clean and straight.

But like another seeker in the vintage movie Deliverance, I wake up in my home in the middle of a subdivision and wonder what being a seeker (Genius?) was all about.

I had all the perks of being a genius long before the genius came. Because of good families on both sides and the healthy society we had in the Seventies, the money and the fame came, it seems, before I even put serious pen to paper. I had been the new Superhero: AFFIRMATIVE ACTION MAN...MULTICULTURAL MAN.

It takes a family, and I had tampered with commandments, become a spoiled brat, satisfying all appetites, while the family waited for accomplishments.

They finally came, thirty years later, but in dribbles and in bits.

In today's world, you can almost put Humpty-Dumpty together again, but it will still be a patchwork.

Po' egghead.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

LOVE POEM

He saw the teardrop on the rose
And again, he saw the teardrop on a rose
And he knew he could never melt the teardrop
And he knew this was already the end

So he kissed the face of the evening wife
As he had kissed it before, in all its varying forms
And again said hello to a precipice of silence
A precipice of silence
For his eighteen months of loving

The Queen of Swords is crossed over
And all the king's horses and all the king's men
Are trying to get her together again
like me
To no avail.

Gigolo and Gigolet
This side of the lake of mutilation
Strike a match
And the hotel burns

There is only
this path of silence
As we dump our gods
And become like them

--Ivan Prokopchuk

DEATHLESS PROSE DEPARTMENT

I am hardly a born-again Christian, but a fundamentalist minister friend once told me that after being "born again", the Old Man will try to resurface, you know, wine, women, booze, cigarettes--all the good stuff--and next thing you know, you're on the road to hell again.

Which brings me to some degree of wobbling now that I just got over being homeless, penniless and sleeping in the streets, a fairly common way to go in these days of crash and burn.

After four years of living in a parking lot (thank God for goodhearted Dominion and IGA and Swiss Chalet for feeding me free) I can't get over the mind-cast of being homeless, on the street and on the make.

I am still like the French writer Celine, very alert, vigilant after my personal World War, sharp as a London cabdriver and articulate as Michael Coren, though only for economic reasons. I am guided by (I swear) global positioning which allows me to find a lost $20 bill just like that, and when I find lost driver's licenses or wallets I am the silver-tongued devil in fishing out a reward.

Even now, though ensconced in a lovely apartment (Thanks Ernie) well fed by good-natured Anglicans who took pity on an Anglicized Uke, I go for walks knowing that each acre of asphalt, each social encounter, has its economic prospects.

When I'm out walking, my eyes sweep left and right like a cyborg's: I am programmed to search for big 25-cent returnable beer bottles, taupe-coloured ten dollar bills (that like to blow in wet against a Zeller's wall in windstorms), green-and-red glints of still usable Bic lighters, brass-and-silver twoneys and looneys rolling out of recently parked cars like Johnnycakes. Furthermore, every discarded cigarette pack on the parking lot must be lightly trod upon, because I know for sure that the fifth one will still have five good ones in it.

The old hobo is still there, even in my spanking clean apartment. I roll stiff socks across the floor, wondering what puddle I'll wash them in when the washing machines are right there on the main floor.

In the company of Mayor Tom Taylor of Newmarket, I may stoop down a reach for a still serviceable cigarette butt. At the Tim Horton's I fasten an old wad of chewing gum to the soles of my sandals, just in case someone drops a twenty.

I regard all men as lucky or unlucky, hell with the Cancer lobby. The lucky ones can smoke, drink and fornicate like crazy until seventy-plus. The unlucky are the infant mortality set, held together by tubes and doctors, the non-smokers, dental floss surfers, the abstainers who go to work every day for thirty years only to be eaten by a deranged bear in the middle of suburbia.

It wasn't always so. I had lost my ability to survive by having a spouse who loved me too much, by giving me a hundred dollars a day to look for work. Who was looking already!

She must have loved me a lot, because it took her ten years to throw the bum out.

Every morning the Bum Also Rises, even after the Bum has seen the light.

I am dressed in the standard middleclass attire of modified bomber jacket (not too boxy), grey slacks, black Adidas, yet I cannot resist picking up a quarter on a street or a bus. "No need for a sweeper here," the driver breezes. "We've got one in the fourth seat from the back."

When I had the executive jobs I would often be overwhelmed by my own incompetence (Yes, the Bum would rise there and confront me with his accusations: "That was no nightmare about poverty last night--it was a dream of the future, YOUR future.") The hopeless sense of incompetence came for having a technology lag going back some thirty years (I never caught on to computers, having my secretaries handle all that), and once installed in a newspaper office, I couldn't tell calculus from cabbageheads). They found out, and I was fired.

I really missed my spouse's C-notes to look for work with. For a long four years, I scoured the parking lot and by the time I got a job as a teacher, I was too far gone in the head from sleeping out nights and drinking Vanilla Extract. I couldn't teach because a teacher couldn't be crazy.

Eventually, I landed a job as a furnace mechanic's helper. Inevitably, my boss heard my life story.

"When you get back there, stay up there," he said wisely as we drove back in the truck after a furnace repair where he'd taken out all the fail-safe circuits instead of properly reinstalling a burner. I looked into the rear view mirror on the passenger side an saw a little Portuguese homeowner jumping up and down, smoke pouring out of the house, the chimney spewing H-bombs. "Don't look back," my boss advised wisely.

Maybe there's something to the "old" man rising after all. Maybe he's trying to tell you something.

My boss made a whole seventy thousand dollars that year, though he was as incompetent as dog poo. Soon, he stopped paying his suppliers, picked up an expensive habit and left a lot more people jumping up and down in front of belching furnaces. Was Dante trying to tell us something? Cynical in the old days, I would say "Beware of Florentines bearing gifts", but there's something to it, why else was I always trying to fix furnaces gone amuck. It's that Old Man again.

I visit my old boss at the Rehab Centre quite a bit. "Don't look back," he mutters.

Easy for him to say. I am back on the street again. Successful again. But at what? Beating the Schmertz?

Get down you bastard.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

TELEVISION THAT DOESN'T MATTER

Reduced to being laid off at the college and drinking beer while watching TVO, I notice a stream of academics, usually American, on BIG IDEAS prattling the same luddite sermon that would make poor Marshall McLuhan roll over in his grave. Yes, yes, we have all lost our child-like sense of wonder. There are no more pockets of angels. The machine has taken over, etc., etc.

I have one friend left, who happens to be the local chief of police. (I am still working on a case with him, though I fear he has lost his faith in me as the local Eves Lavigne, or for that matter, Avril Lavigne).

"Armand," I say, "All academics are slime."

"You used to be an academic," the Chief quips.

Sigh.

What is it with TVO? A billion dollars a year, English and French transmissions (or emissions as the French charmingly call them)--to hear ranting poseurs reading from the same sermon writer (the late Jacques Ellul?); moth-eaten Anglophone jazz musicians boring us to death with their stale Cole Porter and totally unsuccessful at rendering us unhip and incompetent. Only Paula Todd is in there to raise an, ahem, hope or two. While obviously smart, the woman is drop-dead gorgeous and her pal the elephant man is at least worth his keep as an interviewer. All right. Studio Two works, more or less. But what of the remaining $750 million of our forcibly extracted money?

It's enough, I suppose, to make a greatly gifted diva like Jann Arden wail hauntingly, like a lonely frightened angel. That's what the academics missed. They know how an angel can wail, but they can't do it themselves, and when they can't they blame it on technology.

Television That Matters. TVO.

No. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all, with the same loops of moth-eaten NASA documentary footage, dreadful British detective yarns that I"m sure even Yorkshire rejects and the same old chesnut American movies. Is there no talent in Canada?
If you've been watching TVO recently, especially Studio 2, only Jann Arden seems to be in there pitching.

The brain is indeed a "lonely soldier."