Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Hat People

Depressed today.

...A professional setback.

This is a new development? Hah.

I think of warmer places, warmer times.
Oh wonderful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

I had just finished my premier novel, The Black Icon, and began to write about that experience in my second novel, The Hat People.
Most books on writing say it should never about any kind of artist, but what the hell. It was about the exhiliaration of getting a novella done by 29, and hey, getting my wife pregnant. Two buns in the oven? I wrote the following in the third person. The book is not entirely without a kind of paranoia that some artists might feel.

Chapter Three

Driving back north from Mexico City, through the Sierra Madre mountains the movie setting of that great Humphrey Bogart film about the down-and-out Yankee and the treasure sought there. Road incredibly flat stabbing ever forward into the haze now that the roadrunner and Coyote Mountains seemed a little behind. Countryside levelling off now, becoming dreamlike and in April bloom. Prickly pear, chaparral, Yucca, strung out like columns of hatted figures with arms outstretched, already priming of some nightmare dream of John Lazarowych's future. But this had been a great year for John Lazarowych, driving his battered '63 Dodge into the heat. Beside him, wife Laura, black-haired, freckled and soft, sexy toothsome dumpling. Pregnant, a little bring-uppy, her last bout of car sickness behind since they'd crossed the Namulique Pass, that stark mountain horror show with the narrow band of road around hellish highlands, vultures on either side of hills, clinging to shrivelled mesquite. Laura was looking better now, her round face dimpled into a mysterious smile. Pregnant. Why not? Things couldn't have worked out better. John taking nine months to complete his novel, completing at last a lifetime project and Laura's own biological clock was obviously working bang on time.

Hating being sick, Laura thought of other times, in California and France, places she'd been to and been sick at, meeting, as she termed it, "a whole series of assholes", surfers, drug runners and a Canadian boyfriend who had treated her, in the face of all the available women in both places, like a hamburger in a steakhouse. She knew that non-swinger John would never leave her and it was his baby that she wanted to have.

She thought of San Miguel Allende from where she and John had just returned. San Miguel, ageless Mexican hill town, houses of buff and yellow adobe flush, Italian and Greek style, one against the other; churches stabbing up into a dark, thick sky. The Jardine, the town square so common in Mexico rubber and trueno threes, palms fronting arched hotel fronts, and to the south of the garden the great three-spired parrochia, parish church, a cathedral really, with its icons and its magnificently gilded interior. She had loved the colonial lock of San Miguel, the scroll-doored mansions, wrought iron balconies, something straight out of technicolour dreams long ago before she had lost some of her colour sense, maybe it had been the LSD she'd done while backpacking through France and Spain, rebellious artistic type that she had been. There had been a nightmare or two where she dreamed she couldn't distinguish between two shades of gray and then she'd wake up to find John's face beside her and she was calmed.

She had come to Mexico to live with this strange Slav she had just married, this strange, intense man who fairly bristled with frailties and inconsistencies, but who, with monomaniacal fervour, wanted to do something right and consequential for once, so he had set out to write a book. And he did. And of that they were both proud. And the two of them had conceived something more important together, this new thing inside her which now so troubled her insides.

She watched John her madman and frequent social boor, his left hand on the wheel and the right one thoughtfully scratching his crotch. "Good old John Lazarowych, your friendly down home social misfit who wants to be great," she thought.

They had been able to go to San Miguel after her chain store owning father had given Laura the alternative of a big wedding or a vacation in some inexpensive country to live. She had gone to San Miguel with this penniless Slav, this young-old man with his dreams and pretensions, with the manners of a churl.

Like many another escapees from the factory, the lift trucks and the machines, he had little idea of personal grooming, bushy eyebrows growing together, the baggy polack pants, second hand shoes a size too big. She had made a swan out of him, had gotten him a couth denim outfit, taken tweezers to his eyebrows under which the hazel eyes now shone, he complaining and yelling in the process.

I wonder if the baby will look like him, she thought.

He had a good profile, now that he was no longer down-looking and not quite so nervous; straight long nose, high cheekbones, narrow bone protected eyes. His chin, which was a trifle too small, was the only part of his face that seemed out of line, but she never did like men who were Hollywood handsome. She liked his face, that simpatico face that somehow gave the impression of being startled, violated. John too, was happy, Laura had been good to him, incredibly so. Laura, this hot-cold emotional little battery of a woman who had put up with his monomania, patiently letting him work six hours a day, locked in the spare bedroom of their Americanized modern apartment in San Miguel, madly pounding out fourteen pages a day, retaining maybe three after self-editing. He'd have supper drink a half-pint of tequila afterwards, give her an "affection fix" and then go out to see a friend or two. Next morning, the same thing would happen. He had no idea how to write a novel, that bastard adultery-laden form. He did end up as a journalist, writing for money, all brains and no money. Journalism took smarts, political savvy. But a novelist, that was the crème-de-la-crème. A journalist who wrote a fine novel was a person who elevated him or herself to drama, no more the chores and ambulance chasing. Or at least that's the way Lazarowych saw it. He had to write the book. And he had done it, but at no small degree of personal suffering and doubt, in spite of the freedom from work for a year, the cosy uncomplaining love of Laura and their ridiculously high standard of living in impoverished Mexico, where Gringos invested pennies and gleaned dollars. To be a writer, he discovered, one had to be a fanatic, prone to fixation, a kind of compulsive madness. Maybe his long-dead countryman, Nikolai Gogol had it right. Maybe a book was always the diary of a madman.

He was coming back with 150 closely typed pages of manuscript, 40,000 words of what he thought would be a passable first novel. Passable, but not more. It had come from drinking fourteen cups of coffee a day, pounding that damnable typewriter for six hours a day, day in and day out. And then throwing away most of the work afterwards as simply not acceptable. He had developed intestinal disorders and finally bleeding haemorrhoids from the combination of the every present dysentery in Mexico. "At least you know you didn't marry a perfect asshole”, he joked to Laura. He had done it.

John turned up the radio. Still nothing but mariachis and the echoing chanticleer cry of Mexican advertising. He flicked the knob off and went back to his thoughts.

No, it hadn't gone badly. But now that he had finished the project, would it go the way he had hoped it would? Would this novel be the magic psychological key that would open a New World, liberate him from the incubus of wrong background, family nervous disorders, the Second World War, incest, Portnoy's Complaint and the whole sorry history of a Canadian-raised displaced person, home and hearth shot up so long ago by both Nazis and Russkies, brought to Canada with his parents to begin a new life, reading the comic books and Gogol and The Story of Philosophy to somehow salvage what was left of an I.Q. Too many comic books? (It wuz da comic books that dunnit to me).

Was he just another fast Horatio Alger, still another hungry foreigner who had come to reap the obvious wealth of Canada? Or was he more authentic? Was he just kidding himself by all this scribbling and drinking?

Comic books. Superman, (Made in Canada), Captain Marvel, (made in U.S.A). The ultimate immigrants. Scared to death of Kryptonite, Dr. Sivanna. The Joker out of Batman.

The book, his novel, thought Lazarowych, would be a personal statement, and incantation of 40,000 words, a sort of SHAZAM! Through which he, the crippled Billy Batson from Galicia in the Ukraine would invoke cosmic forces to assert himself as a human being, to join ugly ducklings, some of them profound, and put his name on the world's list of authors.

Authenticity. Had he taken too good an English course at university?

Could it be that he was cribbing Balzac by way of Gogol? He remembered hiding his Russian copy of Taras Bulba under his school desk while pondering the intricacies of Dick and Jane. And Dick and Jane were intricate.

See Spot run back to Canada along the Pan-American Highway.

He had been deluding himself? He had written a staggering 900 pages first draft within six months, working first in Toronto while Laura worked, and then in Mexico. He had been riding on a crest of optimism and confidence buoyed up through unbelievable success in a Johnny-come-lately University writer's course.

On graduation, a number of teachers had assured him that he was gifted and would someday write a fine novel, this based on their reading of the poetry and short stories he had published in the little magazines, Tamarack Review, Fiddlehead. Now Lazarowych wasn't so certain. Teachers were kindly men, and their own ambitions, their own way of justifying a job in Toronto and not at Trinity College, Cambridge.

He'd worked as a newspaper reporter after graduation, all the while making three or four false starts at a novel. Finally, after three years, he decided to start at the beginning, the standard "I was born" opener and at last he seemed to be onto making a book.

But looking over his first draft, Lazarowych had been distressed to realize that all he had done in the script was state his origins and go on to still another imitation of Portrait of the Artist, a book he had learned to love, like many another English major. He could also see in the tortured words an attempt at startlement, drama to get himself out of a prosaic style. Apocalypse began to sound every few pages, the fiery borrowed phrases of Nietzsche out of his philosophy primer, the beautiful but borrowed encounter poetry of Martin Buber, the "I" meeting the "Thou", almost a primer on the way the eastern European mind really works, cf. Stanislaw Lem. Our galaxy is in the shape of a hat.

But it was their thought and not John's own. It may be true that genius steals outright where mere talent only borrows, but John at that point wasn't even certain he was in the talent category. So much to digest, so little time.

Within 900 pages of manuscript, Lazarowych was panicked to discover that he really did not have much to say in terms of a personal philosophy or a unified theory of the world. What emerged was a mere beginning, an account of his family's survival in Europe and the combination of strength and blind luck that saved the family from a tragic Bosnia situation to find final safety in Canada.

What appeared in John's work was the story of Michael and Sophia, barely literate, ignorant bigoted characters, steps away from peasantry, his father and his mother. Yet they were the heroes of the book. "We wrote The Madonna and the Teuron for you”, they seemed to say.

An autobiographical reprieve, the luck coming from the story rather than the style. How can you possibly develop a world view, a philosophy of life and art when you were only 29? Sure there was Keats, and Shelley and Dean Swift. But they leaned heavily on Plato and Swift certainly on Juvenal. All John could do at 29 was to assert the survival instincts of his parents. They had created and maintained him. They had brought him through a war on three fronts and years of daily bombings to the luxury of an education and the vanity of writing a book.

The twentieth century seemed so full of Heisenbergs, Max Plancks, quantum technicians who were already shaping the beginnings of artificial intelligence, yet this too would someday show itself as phony, since, as Celine might say, the universe is a phoney, events having happened millions of light years ago and all we see with our telescopes is illusion. It's back to Newtonian conceptions, though Newton, a virgin, a Dr. Virago, missed a lot of the feminine equation too. A clockwork universe until the four horsemen come on the scene. Then it's Hieronymous Bosch time; the time of the "painted birds" already chronicled in a work similar to John's. And yet the author of that other book was soon found to be a CIA operative who was accused of stealing that World War Two novel from another man, a cipher, and therefore something of a phoney himself.

Whatever the tricky problem of authenticity was, John's Madonna and the Teuton was at least original. It wasn't a magnum opus, but there were compensations. Well, it's done. It's done anyway. Done at age 28, just before my 29th birthday and I'll probably have a son on top of that.

Laura was going to be sick again.

He pulled the car over to a gravelly halt in a dust cloud, along a yellowed ditch and watched the car's temperature shooting up as he opened his heavy driver's door to get out and help Laura.

He held her side while the girl gave out with a sort of dry heave, not offensive, for he loved her and she was in a way, him. Laura didn't get sick. A hot, moisture starved burst of desert air played around her face and long black hair, cooling her off a little and abating the spasms. They couldn't set off immediately, for a curious, wandering cow, something not too new in that part of Mexico, couldn't stop being curious. The little white Brahma cross soon made up her mind as to where she wanted to go. John turned on the key and they drove on.

Laura tried to think of more pleasant things, to get her mind off the weariness, the travel, the morning sickness, the car sickness. She thought of Toronto and the familiar things there after nearly nine months in Mexico. Even as early as her fourth month in Mexico, she had taken to thinking and dreaming of busy Yonge Street, or Yorkville mall with its colours and its wares. Mexico was beautiful in its own pristine way, the solid Latin culture, the incredible Samba beat to the music, like a drink of hot whiskey first thing in the morning or a Budweiser beer buzz without the rock and roll. Touches of Flamenco instead, wafting around the beautiful colonial hill towns, paved with stone. But there was much to be said about the First World too. Bathtubs, cleanliness, the sheer abundance of consumer goods, the abundance probably standing in the way of Canada ever developing a real culture, most Ontarians wishing no doubt that they could be from upstate New York or Baltimore Maryland, so heavy was the American pull. Yet there was a straightness about living in Mexico for too long. So little of that fabricky stuff, nylon, poplin, linen, Dacron, polyester. And easily managed coins that could fit into a stylish purse. The Mexican peso was three times the bulk of a Canadian quarter, and for all its size was only worth eight cents. And Mexican Dysentery was three times as bad as a case of the runs in some northern Ontario privy.

Not having to wash every item of your dinner in purified water. That would be a relief. Laura had found art in the blue hills of San Miguel, and Guanajuato. She had painted and it all came out blue, just the way she had imagined those hills and that colour in a girl's dream of the future. An artist, Laura loved beautiful things whether in clothing, architecture or art. She had also, a bourgeois lass, sat on cold steps in Yorkville in the middle of the night to suffer, be an artist. What a dumb kid I had been!

Toronto, with its well-treed streets, often backing onto park-like ravines, the Victorian and neo-Gothic houses not at all jarred into modernism by the new City Hall, a light-toned Boticelli shell of a building. Yet Toronto seemed a little sooty, old. Younger, centuries younger than San Miguel, it had yet to hold a candle to some flower-bedecked, fountain filled city like Guadalajara. You needed a Copenhagen for that. The great Finnish architect Urjo Revell was leading the way in that direction for Toronto.

She looked again at John who for once in his gesticulating, exuberant life was not saying anything. A look of something like fright had crossed his Alexander Putin face. Since he'd finished the book he seemed to be in a state of shock, vulnerable. Silently, Laura said to him: Don't worry my darling. Don't worry about anything. Some day we'll both have what we want, if not through your efforts, then through help from my side. Some day I'll have my beautiful things and you'll have your beautiful words.

Hours becoming days. John and Laura moving ever north, past the customs hassle of Laredo, past San Antonio, Tulsa. Freeways and turnpikes, at night luxuriating in American motels with television, bathtubs, cleanliness after the damp, dingy roadhouses and motels of Mexico. Watching cartoons on television, the Incredible Hulk, the Herculoids, Popeye and a strange cartoon show where every character was a hat, Lidsville. There was something about hats that had scared John for many a year. It made him think somehow of oppressed blacks and the pointed hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. He had, since coming to Canada with his parents felt black, an outsider, a freak. One day the Hat people would get him. Lynch him...


Charles Gramlich said...

I like that title. Good chapter. Paranoia is a job hazard for writers.

JR's Thumbprints said...

... and to think that after my divorce I left my standard ballcap behind, preferring something much dressier (for the ladies out there); yet, the new hat didn't feel right so I returned to my old look. Perhaps paranoia and hats feed off of one another. said...


Thanks! There is a cliche saying about writers and paranoia. "Paranoia will destroy ya."

Anonymous said...


There is something brilliant about your insight into "hattism."

And I do sympathize and empathise with your present plight.

Mine came at about forty, at about the time I stopped being "wonderful"
...Couldn't gather the words needed to impress my wife. said...


Wrong button!...That last was me, Ivan.

Chris Benjamin said...

Two famous pieces of contradictory advice:

-Write what ya know
-Never write about writers

WTF? Who writes these rules anyway?

My next novel will be about time-traveling writers in space. said...

Hi Benji,

Charles Gramlich (above) is not afraid to write about anything in his fantasy SciFi. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi folks,

I'll be signing Eco-Innovators at the Seaport Farmers' Market this Sunday morning (starting 8 am) so if you're a Halifax market person pop in and say hi.

And next week, Tuesday afternoon that is, I'll be signing books at Flow Lifestyle Boutique - which is featured in the book - in Amherst. Let your Amherst and Sackville NB friends know!

That same evening (that's Tuesday Dec. 13, starting at 7) I'll be doing a reading from Drive-by Saviours at the Economy Shoe Shop ( in Halifax (right across from that giant hole in Argyle Street that used to be a newspaper). It's part of their More Than Just a Reading reading series. Come on out and holler at me!

The new book has received some nice coverage in Kings County, and has now been included in the local paper's holiday book guide:

Also, my friend and mentor Silver Donald Cameron (also mentioned in the book) wrote a very touching piece about me at The Green Interview website:

Happy reading!


Chris Benjamin is a freelance journalist. said...


How lucky to have Silver Donald Cameron as a mentor!

I recall handling some of his stuff when I was a staf writer in the PANORAMA section of the Canadian Star Weekly. Lord, that was easily a generation ago.

Looking over Silver Donald Cameron's part-review of your book, I am again heartened by what he said about professional writers, especially freelanceers, to wit:

"But that's what a serious freelance writer's life is like – and apparently always has been. When I was in Chris's position, as a young professional writer, I interviewed Thomas Raddall, who had built a fabulous career as novelist and historian from a base in the small paper-milling town of Liverpool, N.S. Raddall said he admired people like me, trying to make a living as writers in the arid environment of the 1970s. He thought it was a very tough period. In his day, said Raddall, a generation earlier, there were still major magazine markets that paid substantial fees – big, muscular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post in the States, and Blackwood's in Edinburgh. Book publishers still provided substantial advances, and outfits like the Book-of-the-Month Club bought huge quanties of interesting new books. But by the 1970s, the glory days of book writing and publishing were clearly waning; newspapers were shrinking, magazine rates of pay were contracting dramatically, and television was scooping up the advertising dollars. Raddall didn't envy me, starting out as a writer in those conditions.

And in truth it was not easy. Print was my love, and I published books and articles as I could – and I also did a lot of work for radio and TV. I modelled myself on my rural Cape Breton neighbours, who put together a living by driving the school bus, doing a little fishing and some carpentry, shooting a deer, planting a vegetable garden. Flexibility and footwork were the skills that got us all through."


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