Living in a Dark Age

by Rick Salutin,
ISBN: 0006471463

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Biting the Hand
by Larry Scanlan

ONE MORNING in the fall of 1988, Rick Salutin took a seat in the "green room" of the CBC-Radio program "Morningside," in a corner of the office where producers chat up guests before walking them down the hall to Studio R. Salutin betrayed no hint of nervousness at the prospect of discussing his first novel, A Man of Little Faith, on live, national radio. He seemed casually intense, as if that were his natural state. Next to the coffee machine an in-house monitor was relaying Peter Gzowski's live interview with three regular panelists.

"What's that?" he asked neutrally. They were discussing interest rates.

"The business column," I told him.

"Oh really," he replied sarcastically. 'And when is the labour column on?"

My reply was a poor Jimmy Stewart imitation: "Well, uh, ya see....

In that moment before airtime, most authors are preoccupied with butterflies or simple joy that their tome is getting the Gzowski send-off. To use the moment to raise critical questions about the program itself would seem too much like biting the hand that feeds.

Salutin bites.

The latest book of this versatile writer--novelist, playwright, journalist, polemicist - contains further clues to the man and a better understanding of that interlude in the green room. Living in a Dark Age gathers 67 essays written between 1984 and 1991 for newspapers and magazines, and especially for the left-ish This Magazine.

I learned, for example, that Salutin largely reviles mainstream journalists as "overfed, complacent and complicitous." I learned why he calls this era "the dark age": "What can you say about a world view that reduces the whole field of aspiration to making lots of money and going shopping with the proceeds?" He's gutsy, names names.


Big names. In one essay, CBC personalities, particularly, get royally Saluted as Meech Lake lackeys working in a private Tory club: he casts Don Newman in the role of head waiter while Wendy Mesley takes their orders. Peter Mansbridge gets slapped for thanking viewers at the end of news casts. Vicky Gabereau is "national radio's resident vulgarian."

Such sniping often detracts from Salutin's good ideas. What he wants is democracy at every turn. If there is to be a business column on "Morningside," let there also be a labour and consumer column. If Canadian TV is going to air a cop show such as "Hill St. Blues," why not a show that conveys the realities of young Blacks in west-end Toronto? If elitism is the chief trait of our time, and censorship a constant, then "Frank, that scurrilous and invaluable Ottawa rag," should have a place after all.

Living in a Dark Age contains some dated material. The free-trade pieces seem particularly tired now. But collectively, as a body of critical thought, the book endures surprisingly well. I admired a piece that uses a 1961 National Film Board documentary on Paul Anka to make points about both the singer and the NFB. Another, on Merle Shain, reveals that Salutin can be as passionate in his defence of a friend as he can be in his attack on an enemy. He delights in the boyishly gleeful duo of Jim Tatti and Mark Hebscher, who broadcast the sports on Global TV Most nights, the only TV I watch is their exuberant coverage of that day's sports highlights - Salutin calls it "the closest thing to total free association on TV" and their program "an oasis of human happiness." The range of Salutin's interest is vast: people, business, baseball, low and high culture and, especially, politics.

Often humourless, often funny, and full of contradictions, Salutin makes little attempt to charm his reader, to write about himself, or even to be liked - the secret ambition of many columnists. Salutin is more inclined to issue challenges to established views, the primary one being to think and rethink. May our dark age never get so dark that there is no place in it for Voices such as his.


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