Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Clark Kent forever


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 #2-- MELVING MOLE, A MAN OUT OF CONTROL.
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 tunnelling and 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 Franz 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, went solo, but as things turned out, I 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, Toronto, 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 SATs, 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, myself often accompanied by a younger version of Jeannie Beker, 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 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 I had made all the mistakes a first novelist makes). Mr. Fulford denies this today, saying he never got around to reading the book.

But Bill McVicar, and Pat Williams, and Rae Corelli, my newfound friends--all succeeded. And so did The Star. Still, I have not made a serious dent into journalism (does being a magazine editor count?) or have I cracked the tough nut of Canlit, passe as it seems to be right now. 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.

If you stick around, you'll be able to read all four.
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 Toronto Star. Thank you writing instructor Tom Mayer.

You tried to re-teach me how to fly, Tom, in your trusty Cessna.

I hope I am finally doing it.


19 comments:

Donsie said...

Looking forward in reading some more....

islandgrovepress said...

Hi donsie,

I was especially taken with your third-last blog, "Please let go", about having to separate from someone, even if you still cared for that person.
Ah, the condition we sometimes get ourselves in.

Thanks for commenting.

Ivan

Josie said...

Oh, Gawd, I remember Melvin Mole.

I'm in a hurry this morning. Will chat more later. We woke up to snow (sigh) this morning. It's back into my yellow puddle jumpers.. (deep sigh).

Josie

islandgrovepress said...

Too bad about the snow, Josie.

Now weren't those puddlejumpers a good investment?

It is March First, and we have a doozer of a storm system coming in all the way from Colorado (I wouldn't be surprised if Liz gets the same in Oklahoma).
You listnin' Al Gore?
I swear it's the coldest February in Ontario yet.
And here come the Ides of March!

The only good thing here in Toronto North is that people have a way of uddling against each other, reinforcing each other, people you haven's seen in years, doffing their touques and saying hello.
I'd live in Florida or Texas or Oklahoma again, but those tornadoes!

Ivan

islandgrovepress said...

p.s. to donsie,

If you click onto top right of my homepage (just above) you'll get more of the adventures of "Clark Kent" in my novel, "The Hat People".
Not all that many people were thrilled with the book, but both my Prof and my car mechanic read it from cover to cover.
I suppose there was something there for each of them, the Prof to check my style and the mechanic fascinated, I suppose by the l973 Dodge I drove at the time.

Ivan

Josie said...

Ivan, Al Gore didn't talk about global warming, he talked about climate change. Snow in Vancouver in March? Climate change...!

Do you have a DVD player? You should rent his documentary. He won an Oscar for it. He may win the next election as well :-)

Josie

P.S. I am beginning to hate my puddle jumpers. I want my flip/flops back.

Sigh....

islandgrovepress said...

Josie,

I checked the weather for Vancouver last night.

...I guess I scrambled my information with the morning eye-opener. Weathermap had said eight above Celsius, and some rain.

Now you get this! Fershlugginer snow.

DVD?...Well, Wal-Mart is just around the corner and I got my Mastercharge back, so I suppose I can get one.
The only thing that bothers me about Al Gore (didn't he do a lovely star turn?) is that his ideas are held by a billion other people...Why doesn't he say something startling, like, say,
Christ was a White Russian? Heh.

But what a long-distance runner! The guy is really a winner.
I'll bet you, just bet you that if he threw his hat into the ring right now, he'd smoke both Hillary and Barrack Obanma. Nothin' left but a hank o' hair and piece of bone!
But it's all those Democrats!
If they don't win this one, they should get out of the politics business.
To the Barracks, my friends!

Ivan

Josie said...

If the Democrats don't win this won, they should all put themselves onto an iceberg and float off to the South Pacific.

islandgrovepress said...

With Ralph Nader and John Carey under each arm? Heh.

I like both these guys, but they do have a way of scotching the vote.

Oops, I should have said "spoiling", I guess. :)

Ivan

Josie said...

And do you remember that funny little guy from Texas? What-was-his-name? Looked like a cartoon character?

Josie

Josie said...

Ross Perot.

islandgrovepress said...

Yes,
Ross Perot.
But he seemed to have had a clue or two!

Donnetta Lee said...

Oh, I think you are flying high! And, yes, thank God for unhappy childhoods. Thank Heaven. Without them what would little writers do? Donnetta

islandgrovepress said...

Ross Perot was just l4 per cent short of winning the Electoral College vote. That's against Bush Sr. and the Tuba Man.

But then,

Chad, oh Chad.
Something's hung you up
and I'm feeling so bad!

Ivan

islandgrovepress said...

That is so right-on, Donnetta!

Seems somebody has to dump on us before we can even pen a line!

Ivan

Josie said...

Did you make that up?

Oh, God, too funny...!

islandgrovepress said...

Hi Josie,

Just a parody on the Broadway play,

"Dad, poor Dad,
Something's hung you up, and I'm feeling so sad."

Lovely watercolour of Munchkin No. 2 on your site, btw.

Ivan

JR's Thumbprints said...

I would never want to be Hemingway. I don't like the taste of metal in my mouth.

islandgrovepress said...

Hi JR,

Hemingway, at the height of his manic depressiveness, when he was getting serious professional help, said, "I wish all these doctors would take a creative writing course so they'd understand what in hell they were dealing with."

Seems that geniuses like Hemingway
had this "black dog" thing, this recurring depression, this "savage god" of another genius, Sylvia Plath. Every couple of days, this
savage god came around waiting to collect.
Not Scrooge come to collect, but Death Come Callin'.
I am no genius, but every couple of days I wake up glad that my oven is electric.
And my gun is made of plastic.

Things last longer than people, guns last longer than people, that's why I refuse to own one--at least since the Air Force.
But, face it, most serious artists
were, underneath it all, nuttier than half-shagged mink on lonely sandbars.
Virginia Woolf wasn't lucky, like Hemingway to be at least manic-depressive. She was just plain depressive and eventually she took the hemlock too.

But Updike is sane.

So is Joyce Carol Oates (+ - );

So is Tom Wolfe.

So is John Irving, though I worry about Irving's remark on CBC radio about Tom Wolfe: "The guy can't write. He cant f*cking write!".
Made for great radio!

Yes, you have a good point Jim.
All that excellence and at the end
the stupid thing with the gun.

I guess I too, could make a brillant career move, but then I fear hardly anybody would notice.
"Always knew the asshole was nuts".
Heh.

Ivan