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.

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