Post Your Opinion
But Seriously, Folks
by Ted Whittaker

THE PROBLEM IS, WHAT DOYOU leave out? Here`s a novel in part about Toronto, set in the near future -credible enough, if you posit no cataclysms. You`re on shakier ground when youintroduce characters modelled on those now alive and let them appear to be thesame age they are now. But the real difficulty rears up like a mama grizzlywith a threatened cub when, early on in the fable, the National Character isrevealed as one of the major engines driving the plot. In describing Canadiansen bloc, what do you leave out? Rick Salutin nicks butclears those first two hurdles in The Age of Improv, his second novel. In parta cautionary political spoof, it is the biography of Matthew Deans, asuccessful Canadian actor and a patriot, who apprenticed in politicalcollective theatre in the `60s. He decides to run in a federal election.Because he has a friend big in TV, Deans becomes a different sort of householdface. Write-in votes a post-millennial wrinkle - give him thebalance of power in the Commons. He gets to be prime minister. Certain eye-openingbills are passed. To the south, long knives are sharpened. Deans calls areferendum but resigns in the wake of a familial calamity. The denouementexplores ways in which Canada and other countries cope or don`t cope when theirnations are "run by bankers far away." Deans is a mensch. Hesits in the front window of a restaurant, even when he`s the PM, with only oneplain-clothes Mountie nearby. He doesn`t lie. He uses public pay phones. Deans`s comicallyirregular advisers include : the last Marxist professor in the country, whogives advice in his kitchen, partially renovated for 20 years; that TV czar (aMoses Znaimer clone who also serves as one half of the chorus. With theexquisite pollster Tilley Poon, whom he unrequitedly adores, he comments onDeans`s novel political career from the "power corner "of the KingEdward Hotel in Toronto); his perfect daughter, a Ph.D. and her father`s JiminyCricket. There are also current and remembered didactic encounters withtheatrical gurus, who keep Deans true to his calling as an artist in politics.These smell true; Salutin the playwright is mad for all that accretes to thegreat trope that is acting. Another nub here, alltoo Canadian. Salutin wants us to go along with the claim that our nationaldiffidence is a considerable virtue. People don`t accost Deans when he`s PM;they "knew" him when he was on TV, on stage, on the radio. There are very few badguys in The Age of Improv. (Paul Anka is one. He prompts a fictional expatriatejournalist to farcically suggest to the US president, "who made Reaganlook contemplative," the annexation of Canada.) Even the US ambassador,who brings news that the guillotine`s about to head down the groove, displays asoft spot for Maggie Muggins and other mid-20th-century Canadianchildren`s icons. Now we come to what`sreally left out. Where, one wonders, in such a time of crisis, are the millionsof fearful, meanspirited fools who, a couple of decades earlier in times muchless alarming, voted again and again for Mulroney? We are to believe, now thatthe country is truly "down the toilet," that Canadians by this timeare: a) just damnably biddable; and b) hip enough to elect a low-keyimpossibilist who, we`re told offhandedly, weeps at "improbable victoriesover power." Those are Salutin`s bigsatiric premises, and he does prop them up adequately, with not too manyobvious miscues. SuperCanuck Matthew Deans, "authentic citizen,"improviser in art, in life - failed husband, fine actor, sensitive father(!), great lay (!), a splendid pol - breathes life into the moribunddecency of a beaten nation, to show his fellow Canadians the road that leadstoward the goal of living side by side in good faith. Crazy? A reality onlygrasped indirectly, in an improvised fashion, by acting, by a fiction?Certainly, but then? Passed resoundingly with further national economic ruinpending soon, Deans`s weird referendum question is: "Do you believe ourhuman solidarity is the basis of our behaviour toward each other?" "Eppur simuove," Brecht`s Galileo`s line about the turning earth, is one of Deans`searly mottoes. It`s the heart of improv in this intensely topical story of anation acting freely, surprisingly, against type. Matthew/Salutin muses -casually,as usual - "Maybe this wasn`t about politics at all. Maybe it wasabout the effort to shake an old role and find a different one. With a lot ofhelp from his friends and from the whole damn country - at least MatthewDeans succeeds in uniting vocation and avocation. He will be heard fromfurther; he knows that: The publicness he felt he would return to now, becausehe had no choice, was not about ideology or mission; it was about what yousimply are and cannot be other than. It was on that level.

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