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by Joel Yanofsky

IT MAY NOT be enough to ensure a writer's reputation, but there is something to be said for longevity. Morley Callaghan's long career. is proof that a writer can Outlast both his detractors and his fans. 'At 86, he is a model of stamina and consistency. Whether he was being praised by Hemingway, a fellow expatriate in the Paris of the 1920s, or ignored by CanLit critics in the period following the Second World War, Callaghan has never changed his motives or methods.

His novels are and always have been about ordinary people and events. His prose is simple and direct, his plots easy to follow. But if Callaghan's work seems, on the surface, small and unambitious, his underlying themes ? like betrayal, redemption and justice ? have always been complex ones. Callaghan has never backed away from the big issue ?the eternal struggle between man's better and baser natures. That was true more than 30 revised and expanded the novel; he also altered the ending. 'Me result, The Many Colored Coat, appeared in 1960. The original version was published in book form last year.

Set in Montreal in the 1950s, the novel recounts, in a terse, reportorial style, a series of tragic misunderstandings and misjudgements. Harry Lane, a charming young man about town, loses his job, his fiancee and his self?esteem in, an attempt to protect a friend, Scotty Bowman, who is charged with bank fraud. Harry keeps silent in court, allowing himself to be falsely accused of lying and moral cowardice, He is certain that his friend's testimony will exonerate him. But Bowman, the only person who can redeem Harry's good name, hangs himself in jail. Despite an overabundance of plot detail, Callaghan handles the story deftly, combining a straightforward narrative technique with the usual biblical allusions ? the sort of cross?references that inevitably show up in Callaghan's fiction. In the courtroom scene, for example, "the light suddenly changes .... as if it were clouding up Allen, the editor Of Maclean's, control, the characters, like who was so impressed he print? those in a Greek tragedy, are ed it in a single issue of his condemned by fate and the magazine. After that, Callaghan false assumptions of others.

Unlike a Greek tragedy, though, this simple novel bends under the weight of meaningful themes and moral generalities. The problem here is an obvious one; Callaghan is taking his story far more seriously than the reader possibly can. In an era when personal integrity doesn't count for much ? when Ivan Boesky, Sinc Stevens and Jimmy Swaggart are repenting all the way to the bank ? The Man with the Coat seems hopelessly dated.

In hi's new novel A Wild Old Man on the Road Callaghan returns to familiar territory, to Montparnasse, and the world he chronicled in his 1963 memoir That Summer in Paris. This time, though, it's not the Paris of the late 1920s, it is Paris 40 years later ? still inspiring and "shimmering in the late sunlight." The link between the two idealistic decades is joined in the person of Mark Didion, the novel's young hero. The story begins as Mark, an aspiring journalist, arrives on the Left Batik.. There, he discovers that "the sense of personal freedom and liberation of the mind" his generation longs for can be traced back to the 1920s: "In his notebook, Mark writes, 'Our time began back there.'

In Paris, Mark also meets a British man of letters, Jeremy Monk, who is "a revered cult figure" and champion of the left. At the heart of the story is the relationship between the young idealist and his aging, faltering hero. The theme is a familiar one for Callaghan the notion that there is a Judas in us all. As Jeremy tells Mark, "A man must not sin against himself.... (That's) the real betrayal."

At first, Mark views Jeremy as a sort of surrogate father. In turn, Jeremy treats Mark like a son, encouraging him to become a writer. As the narrative unfolds, though, it becomes clear that Jeremy has changed. Not only is he backtracking on his political views, supporting the war in Vietnam and compromising his principles, he is appearing regularly on the television talk show circuit, transforming himself into a personality, and chatting about how he talked to God in the desert. He has, in short, become a selfserving sell?out, a reactionary bore.

Complicating matters is the fact that the now disillusioned Mark has fallen in love with impotent Jeremy's passionate young wife, Cretia. If this all sounds desperately melodramatic, that's because it is. Callaghan's prose, which is flat and hollow throughout the book, becomes remarkably overblown ? full of ohs and ahs and exclamation points whenever the characters in the novel engage in dialogue. Here, for example, is Cretia telling Mark what her love life ?with Jeremy used to be like: 'Oh, how he could love! A kind of fragrance grew from our bodies. I remember, yes, I remember, Yes, then I believe that in spite of his denial he is secretly waiting, lying beside me 'waiting.as I am waiting, yes, like waiting for him to come home. Oh, yes.'

As with most of Callaghan's fiction, there are important themes and conflicts stirring beneath the surface of A Wild Old Man on the Road. What is on the surface, however, is the problem. The characters are unconvincing and the story is 'contrived. We never learn in any satisfactory way, for example, why Jeremy showed an interest in Mark in the first place. 'Me only explanation is a transparent one: to advance the plot. Similarly, Callaghan's portrait of the 1960s is contrived and corny, It is loaded with cliches, full of information that feels as if it were gathered from newspaper clippings and television programs rather than from experience. Ironically, Callaghan's latest novel also seems dated.

Morley Callaghan has endured and for that we can be grateful. Through his perseverance he has cleared the path for two generations of fiction writers in this country. But just as there's something immeasurably sad about an athlete who goes on playing past his prime, there's also something sad about A Wild Old Man on the Road. We know, of course, that nothing lasts forever, but that doesn't stop us from hoping that talent, at least, is immune to time and decline.


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