As the writer-illustrator Bruce McCall reveals in this memoir, his humour is not a lot of random fun. It is a manifestation of the pain and confusion of his youth in Simcoe (Ontario), Toronto, and Windsor and his media-inflamed dreams of the good life beyond the confines of those places.
Essentially, his art is an inflatio ad absurdum of the myths of popular culture. Thus, in his book Zany Afternoons (1982), we find such bygone amusements of the idle rich as zeppelin-shooting ("They fell so much more gracefully than grouse"); murderously precise car ad parodies; a Battle of Britain with the sky raining German warplanes; and the R.M.S. Tyrannic, an ocean liner with gargantuan smokestacks and improbably vast decks, clearly inspired by the travel posters of the '30s, when the term First Class still meant something: "Gentlemen are requested to refrain from riding ponies through the Steerage after 8:00 P.M."
One of the few specifically Canadian items is "The Shame of the North: Life in a Canadian Border Town". It is a two-page drawing of a relentlessly dull main street, peopled almost entirely by men wearing brown boots, yellow pants, belts, suspenders, white shirts, tartan ties, nerdy green ear-flap caps, and expressions of senile contentment.
McCall, who was born in Simcoe in 1935, left Canada in 1962. Canadian reviews of Thin Ice have made much of his enthusiasm for American culture and treated his emigration as if it were an inevitable progression that began when he was a boy. They have generally ignored McCall's contention that he grew up in a Canada that was much more different from the United States than it is now and the fact that, during the Second World War, he shared much of the British and Canadian contempt for Yanks, which was quite in keeping with the views of his Loyalist forebears.
True, he had always known there was more fun and toys to be had in the States, and the flourishing of American advertising in the postwar years, especially the car ads, made a huge impact on him. But, in the book, he mentions no thought of moving to the States. In fact, in 1947, when his father, who had lived in Toronto for almost ten years, coming home on weekends, was finally moving his family there, McCall expected that city to be the place where his incoherent dreams would come true.
Largely because of the slough of dysfunction that was his family, he was badly disappointed by Toronto. In 1953, his father, a deputy minister in the Ontario government, became the PR director of Chrysler Canada, and the family moved to Windsor. Because commercial art was not taught in Windsor schools, McCall dropped out and went to work in a commercial art studio, where he drew and airbrushed pictures of Dodges and DeSotos for six-and-a-half wretched years. It was a doubly cruel fate, in that he felt stuck in the lowest hack end of the business and, before taking the job, he had lost interest in American cars and, to his father's disgust, had become a fan of European sports cars.
McCall's parents, T.C. and Peg, had been bright, New Yorker-reading small-town sophisticates. Early in their marriage, something went wrong. Peg retreated into alcoholism. T.C., who had begun his career as a reporter, spent most of the years 1938 to 1947 away from his family. Their six children grew up convinced that their births had ruined their parents' lives.
However inadvertently, in addition to zero self-esteem, T.C. gave young Bruce an urge to write and draw, which became his salvation. "I winced to see my kindergarten peers slopping about with their poster paints and brushes, rendering rainbows and mountains that didn't exist," he writes of his early attempts to draw. "The point and pleasure of drawing was getting it right, trapping the truth on paper, demystifying another piece of the world."
His parents never thought to share their interests with their kids, but one day, when he was nine, in a closet, McCall found a hand-bound collection of early New Yorkers. Thrilled by their words and pictures, he knew he had "stumbled upon the outskirts of a strange but clearly advanced civilization." During his bleak Toronto high school years, McCall spent incalculable hours in his bedroom, writing and drawing grotesque comic strips and other fancies, including posters for the films of a crummy movie studio and harsh reviews of those productions. When he thought about a career, it was usually art or writing. It never occurred to him that he could combine the two in the real world.
The most harrowing part of Thin Ice follows Peg's sudden death, in 1957. T.C., who had seemed all but indifferent to this woman, was devastated and reached out to his children, but the gulf was too wide. They had nothing to give him. He died two years later.
In 1960, McCall returned to Toronto, to work at a large commercial art studio. Baffled by the task of drawing an oil can, he was quickly let go. After a few months of unemployment, during which he applied for a job as a writer at the Maclean-Hunter trade magazine factory, he was hired by A.V. Roe to draw aluminum canoes, pots and pans, and so forth for a catalogue of the items the firm was then making.
Fortunately, Maclean-Hunter soon gave him a job. It was sheer hack work, but McCall was now certain that writing was his calling, and this was one of the few times in his young life that he was truly happy. He stayed at M-H for six months, then quit to become the editor of a crummy sports car magazine, and he was happy doing that for about a year. Then he realized he was in another dead end and became desperate for a way out.
It came in the person of David E. Davis, whom McCall met while covering a trans-Canada car rally. Davis offered him a job in Detroit, writing Corvette and Corvair ads, and the book ends with McCall leaving Canada to start work. Ahead of him was his move to New York; a successful career in advertising, much of it being work for Mercedes-Benz (R.I.P., T.C.!); his emergence as a comic writer-illustrator; and, some thirties years after he found the bound copies of the magazine, an office at The New Yorker.
I met McCall at the Random House Canada office in June. A shortish fellow with a trim white beard and rimless glasses, he was carrying a vintage Toronto Maple Leafs baseball cap. He had spent the day being interviewed and wanted a cigar, so we went down to the deli on the first floor. Neither of us remarked that we were right across the street from the Hockey Hall of Fame.
PS: Your memoir ends well before your comic art emerged. When did that happen?
BM: In 1970. I had always done it for my family and friends. The idea that I might sell it had always seemed bizarre. How could I? And then I brought in all that baggage about being a high school drop-out and an amateur and a loser, and I never dared try it. But I was in a hospital in Germany, and a good friend in the U.S. and I corresponded. We sent spoofs back and forth. They were about World War II airplanes. Fanciful, funny things. He said, "You know, we could sell them to a magazine." I said, "Oh, come on, it's just boyish fun," but he sent them to Playboy, and they asked me to illustrate them, because I'd done some rough drawings. I hadn't picked up a paint brush in ten years, but I improvised these paintings and did the writing for them. It won Playboy's humour award that year.
PS: What were you doing in Germany?
BM: I was the creative director of the Ogilvy & Mather agency there-for all too long. It was a dismal detour in my life.
PS: And Playboy led to The National Lampoon?
BM: Their sensibility was so like mine, I hit it off right away with the guys who ran it, who were all much younger than me. Fresh-faced, smart-ass Harvard grads. They gave me as many pages as I wanted, and I did whatever I wanted, and that was the beginning of a serious effort to be a writer dash illustrator. I still think of myself as a writer who draws, rather than an artist who writes.
PS: And now you're on The New Yorker staff?
BM: No, I'm a regular contributor. To say "staff" means you're part of the health plan, and I'm not on salary.
PS: You've also written for Saturday Night Live, which has strong Canadian roots. Do you ever think of yourself as part of the large Canadian contribution to American humour?
BM: I think about it a lot. There are a hundred gaudy theories.
PS: What's your favourite?
BM: Canadians are by nature observant and to some degree envious, and that sharpens the faculties, being next door to the U.S. and, in a sense, feeling like a have-not. It's like the British social system makes you exquisitely aware of every little nuance. I think Canadians have some of that, and that leads to humour. Also, I think young Canadian comics have had access to national TV, which American comics don't get till much later in their careers, and that has led to a kind of forced development.
PS: Canadian comics have also had more exposure to British radio and TV comedy.
BM: Maybe this is too pompous and broad, but the Canadian humour sensibility draws from England and the U.S., and the synthesis produces a curiously richer result than either of those originals. There is no question in my mind that I was so affected by The Goon Show. And Punch, which was once a wonderfully witty magazine. There were so many British radio programs, including the quiz shows, which had an effortless erudition combined with wit-something you'd never find in the U.S. I think some of that filtered into the Canadian consciousness, maybe even into the mind of Mike Myers. He had a really interesting interview in the Times magazine last weekend. Why are Canadians funny? He really nailed it. The power of observation developed by need and so on.
PS: At the end of the book, when you're on your way to Detroit, you have some very harsh words to say about the deliberate mediocrity of Canada. Was that you then or you now?
BM: That was me then. I'm not trashing Canada now. I'm trashing Canada from the mind of a twenty-seven-year-old kid, who was pissed off and jobless most of the time in Canada, with nothing but pain and failure in this country. My ego was pissed. Somebody had to pay for that. It's easy to blame your environment.
PS: You were happy at Maclean-Hunter.
BM: Yes, for a merciful few months. Any more than that, I would have gone crazy.
PS: Did you ever try to sell your work in Toronto? There may have been dozens of kindred spirits, had you had the mind to look for them.
BM: Or the guts. I can't describe how little self-esteem I had and how self-limiting that was. When I was at Maclean-Hunter, doing Canadian Paint & Varnish, I could have approached Maclean's magazine, but it never occurred to me. It never occurred to me to try to cultivate people who were doing interesting things. What did I have to offer?
PS: Did you ever think of moving to the States on your own?
BM: Yeah, but I was eligible for the draft until I was twenty-six years old.
PS: It's very Canadian, in that you didn't go to the States until you were invited.
BM [beams and nods]: So true, so true. Also, it was the Eisenhower era. Kids didn't do that. Young men got nine-to-five jobs and secure pay-cheques. I didn't have the guts to think I could leave home and strike out on my own. I should have. My daughter, who's sixteen, is going to Paris for the summer, to be at an art school. If I had done that at sixteen, it would've changed my life forever. I deeply regret that I was born into that stultifying world.
PS: You did all right, in the end.
BM: Agh! It took way too much time.
PS: Am I right in thinking that, in essence, your work is simultaneously a recreation of your childhood fantasies of the glorious world outside Simcoe and a parody of a world you never found?
BM: It's also, as all my work was, and probably still is, a way of sublimating my fears. Many of my pictures are such raw psychological material. These threats I felt. You notice, in my pictures, so much of it is huge things and strangeness threatening or overpowering little tiny people.
PS: Like the Tyrannic.
BM: Yeah. And that's an exact reflection, psychologically, of how I felt and, to some degree, always will feel about life. Your overpowering life. That is the United States. That is my father. That huge big thing.
PS: Would you describe the McCalls as a Loyalist gentry family?
BM: No, they were second-class Loyalists. My cousin Walter Stewart wrote a wonderful book about the Loyalists called True Blue, in which he explained that those who fled at the time of the revolution were the first-class Loyalists. My ancestor, Donald McCall, had been a British soldier. After the revolution, he stayed in New Jersey and farmed, and then, seven or so years later, when it was clear that the country was even more anti-British, he left.
PS: Your book left me with three suspicions, or hunches, if you will. The first is, could you and your siblings have been wrong? You were not the cause of your parents' thwarted dreams. Rather, there was some profound unhappiness with each other or with life, and you were simply baffling by-products.
BM: Yes. That's a very legitimate way to look at it. We were so remote from our own parents. I never knew what caused my mother's despair. On the face of it, there was nothing really wrong with life. Okay, she didn't have that much money, but she wasn't dirt poor. She had a supportive family of siblings around her. A lot of people liked her, and so on. Why she chose to see life as hopeless-he was a selfish son-of-a-bitch. He left her with all these kids to go off and seek his career in Toronto, and how many arguments they might have had about this, I'll never know. Did she make him move us to Toronto in '47? Did he do it on his own? He lived in rented rooms in Toronto for ten years. It'll remain an eternal mystery, whether they hated each other or that some terrible pact was reached between them at an early point. I don't know.
PS: It must have been very painful to write.
BM: It was. I'm still a Presbyterian. I don't like to spill my guts, but I felt that if I didn't do it, I'd never reach that wonderful word, closure. I find that since I wrote the book, I feel a lot better about myself and my fellow man. I just feel sort of purged. I'm not completely over it. Last week, I woke up saying, "What if Dad reads this book? He'll be pissed." It took me a beat or two to realize that Dad wasn't going to read this book. He's still that present in my conscience. So, it'll never be over, but it did a lot of good, expiated a lot of things.
PS: Was there anything that was too painful to write?
BM: Yes, several things.
PS: Like what?
BM: A couple of my siblings have had really awful lives-serious alcoholism and a suicide attempt-and I didn't want to get into that.
PS: Throughout the book, you constantly refer to your father as poor, but he was never unemployed in the Depression; he was an air force officer, a deputy minister, then a Chrysler executive.
BM: He was a popinjay and hung out at the Stork Club when he went to New York and liked to mix it up with the high rollers. Even in Toronto, most of his friends were way above his station. But the money that filtered down to the household was puny. He would get memberships in golf clubs that cost a huge amount of money, and we wouldn't have decent shoes. Never had bikes and so on. There wasn't any money for it, and we've since wondered if he had another life. Did he have a woman somewhere? How come we never had any money? You're right, he wasn't poor, but we lived below our station. I was very aware that I couldn't have things other kids had. I attributed it to the fact that there were six kids, and God, that's a lot of money for clothes and food. And my mother was a horrible housekeeper, so our house always looked as if we were poor.
PS: Your inextinguishable rage, which you mention at the end of the book, prompted my second suspicion. Could it be that your father left you with something more insidious than low self-esteem and so on? That is, his own discontent?
BM: Yes. In fact, my brothers call me T.C., because I'm the most like him. I'm both flattered and appalled by it. I'm very selfish, very self-directed, very emotionally ungiving. It's been a struggle not to become a prick with my own kid. And with my wife. She's got her needs. Mine always come first. And I don't want to ever give anybody anything. Maybe it's some genetic, synaptical thing. I don't know.
PS: Yet you've achieved the sort of success that some people would give an arm for.
BM: I can't take any pleasure from that. As I see it, I've wasted half my life in stupid jobs, based on my own misperception of my value and chances in life. I could have done so much better, if I'd had a decent education and had any kind of contact during my formative years with people who were stimulating and encouraging. I'll never get over that.
PS: You give two chapters to your vain efforts to win T.C.'s heart via baseball and hockey, and my third suspicion is that, directly and indirectly, your work in New York, his spiritual home, has been yet another attempt to win his favour.
BM: No question. But the other part is slaying him by out-doing him. I feel very guilty a lot of times. I made more money, I got further in life than he ever did, I outlived him, and all these things are less sources of pride than Who the fuck do you think you are? He's the all-powerful T.C. You dared to try to succeed him. What would he think of that? He'd be angry. On the other hand, I'm very proud of having done that-a McCall finally clambered out of that mediocrity to do something more with his life than most of them did.
PS: Will you ever not be a Canadian?
BM: No. I was saying to someone today, when I'm in the U.S., I'm a Canadian, and when I'm here, I'm an American, in a funny way. I defend Canada all the time. I'll never give up my citizenship, despite what I say at the end of the book. One of the reasons is I think being an outsider is a very helpful thing for a humourist. It gives you a different perspective, and I've gotten attached to that, I like that feeling. If I were an American, then who would I be? I'd be one of them, and it wouldn't give me the distance I like. I think secretly, that's why I'm not going to become a citizen. Also, there's an attachment that transcends reason. I don't want to be an American. I want to be there, but I don't want to be one.
Young man [suddenly at the side of our table]: Would you be so inclined to donate two dollars to me, so that I can enjoy a dessert?
BM [takes change from pocket, looks at it]: Well, I'll do that.
YM [accepting a twonie]: Thank you very much, sir.
BM: You're welcome.
Phil Surguy, a Toronto writer, is completing a comic novel.