CANADIANS have never needed laughter more. The economy is closing in like a circling shark; our political choices are narrowing quickly to Eenie, Meenie, Mynie, and what's-her-name; and the humourless forces of Political Correctness stalk the land like cultural storm troopers.
Enter Canada's writing community, responding to the challenge with book after book of the anti-reality ammo we desperately need to fight back, to team to laugh again. Two of the most recent efforts also come with two of the highest profiles.
John Levesque, a columnist for the Hamilton Spectator, recently won the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour writing with his collection of columns, Waiting for Aquarius. In winning the prestigious award, Levesque beat out Margaret Atwood, Marni Jackson, and Joey Slinger. Inevitably, such an honour raises the stakes in evaluating his writing and, at the end, I was left wondering what the heck the Leacock judges were thinking.
Don't get me wrong. Levesque is a good writer, and his musings are often amusing. As for the man himself, I really got to like him. At the end of the book, he closes with an interminable "random catalogue" of "Happiness Is" items. Anyone who likes Hound Dog Taylor and "close baseball games in the late innings" is someone I could sit down and enjoy a drink or two with.
Unfortunately, that doesn't make him the kind of humorist I expect from a Leacock winner. Levesque's slaps at computers, flea markets, and money have been done before, and better. And his writings have none of the clever, often acerbic wit that lift Joey Slinger's columns above the journalistic plane.
What Levesque does do well is tell a story, and the columns that take the form of miniature short stories succeed very welt. "Carrickfergus," for example, is an engaging, touching fiction that is the quintessence of concise storytelling. And "The Tragedy of a Very Dim Bulb" even manages to evoke Leacock with its subtle, lushly worded commentary on society's foibles. The problem with the book is that there is too much of the hastily-stapped- together humour columns, and not enough of the intriguing short stories. I'd look forward to reading more of the tatter.
At the other end of the scale 'is Michael Coren, whose Aesthete is a collection of his poison-pen diaries published in Frank magazine. Coren deliberately sets out to shake things up and rite the townsfolk, and he does. Every culture needs an irreverent gadfly, and Coren fills the role admirably, pushing the bounds of taste and decorum even further than Slinger does.
The result is a very mixed bag. Often, Coren settles for gratuitous cheap shots. The very first entry sets the tone, when he lunches with an Audrey McLaughlin who whispers of CIA plots, breaks into tears over oil-soaked seabirds, and weeps that "War is awful."
He also joins the legion of writers who have declared open season on Brian Mulroney, a game that soon grows tiresome as a spectator sport, even while watching as skilled a marksman as Coren at work. Fortunately, though, there are more than enough nuggets of wry, risk-taking humour here to make the digging worthwhile.
Coren's determination to offend leads to some hilariously twisted observations on QueerCops, placenta as a feminist-inspired menu item at the Toronto Star cafeteria, and Howard McCurdy's tearful confession over lunch that he's really a white man.
Coren glories in his defiantly un-PC attitude, and many readers will chuckle along with him at the madness infecting us. A transplanted Brit and converted Catholic, he takes sharp slaps at any hand that feeds him. The Canadian RC Church, he sadly concludes, has been "raped by the forces of banality ... how can one poke fun at an entity that is now built upon lunacy and silliness?"
And his disdain for the "common man" knows no bounds. Denouncing Labour Day as a celebration by "the massed ranks of white trash with their grubby baseball caps, urine-stained jeans and foul mouths," Coren calls for an IQ test for voting rights: "Come on, a loyal and sycophantic pet dog has far more chance of meeting his Maker in Paradise than has Wendel Gluk of Oshawa." (As an Oshawa resident, I should take umbrage at that last shot, but as a former Oshawa resident himself, Coren obviously intends me to.)
Coren's saving grace is that he spreads his malice indiscriminately across all classes, races, beliefs, and genders. In spite of the frequent cheap shots, Aesthete is a valuable mirror to Canadian society and deserves to be read by more than the small circle of Frank readers.
The Frank diaries, though, are best read as they were written, one at a time, rather than as a book.