Donald Jack's horse-faced hero, Bartholomew Bandy, entered literature in the opening lines of a 1962 novel called Three Cheers for Me. The time is July 1916. We find Second Lieut. Bandy, recently commissioned and bound for glory in the Great War, enduring the mockery of local farmers as he trudges down the unpaved main street of Beamington (nine churches, no taverns), his Ottawa Valley birthplace. He is twenty-three, a virgin, a teetotaller, an observing Christian, and an endearing character.
At the beginning of Hitler Versus Me, the eighth Bandy adventure, the time is February 1940. We find Flight Lieut. Bandy sitting in an Avro Anson over Trenton, Ont., enduring the jeers of a bratty British pilot he is instructing. Bandy is forty-five, nursing a hangover, wearing a rug, bitter, and hard to take.
Clearly, much has happened in between-not only to Bandy but also to his creator's muse.
Three Cheers for Me won the Leacock award for humour and much acclaim in Canada and abroad. Every bit was deserved. By mixing broad comedy with brutal catastrophe within a realistic framework, Jack was playing with nitroglycerine. By rights, the novel should have self-deconstructed with a bang that could be heard in Paris.
Instead, he pulled off a small miracle. There have been more elegant and elegiac works about the First World War-Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, for one-but none I know of that so neatly captures the core irony of that grimmest and most absurd of modern wars.
For example, Bandy's full-immersion baptism of fire is the attack on Beaumont-Hamel on November 13th, 1916. "It's enormously important," the company captain explains the day before. "Why?" a junior officer asks. "Haven't got the faintest idea, Spanner, my dear, but that's what they say. It's an eight-division job, by the way.. Naturally, the Heinies know all about it, and they'll be ready for us."
Like most battles, the actual attack is a complete cock-up. Only nineteen out of the Canadian company's 141 soldiers make it back. Jack's description of the action's chaos and carnage, etched in hard steel, is punctuated by the brave and often hilarious banter of rational men trying to cope with mind-boggling horror. The lines ring true-a lot truer than, say, the stiff-upper-lip Henry Newboltisms of Journey's End.
Sadly, there is nothing like the attack on Beaumont-Hamel in the new book. The only thing that comes close is a mildly rousing description of an air fight at the climax of the Battle of Britain, and even that is cursory and familiar. Nor is the picaresque plot coherent enough to summarize. Suffice it to say that the elements include espionage, a wicked deputy minister, the Quebec conference, and D-Day. There are also a love interest and a long-lost son.
What the new book does give us-by the dozen-are corny encounters with real people. At one point in the 1962 book, Bandy goes to Buckingham Palace to collect a gong and finds himself sharing a bathroom with a bearded admiral who turns out to be George V. The scene is funny enough to be remembered over more than thirty years.
In the new book, Bandy meets George VI (who stutters in print), along with the future Queen Elizabeth and her sister. He also runs into Mackenzie King, Mike Pearson (who lisps in print), Igor Gouzenko, Kim Philby, three Churchills (Winston, Winston's double, and Randolph), Evelyn Waugh, Frederick Banting, Charles Ritchie, and (hold on, here) Aircraftsman(2) Donald Lamont Jack. Oh, and I almost forgot: Adolf Hitler (or his double).
None of these encounters is plausible and what humour they yield is feeble. And Jack's other stock comedic device, conversational confusion along who's-on-first lines, didn't have me rolling off the dock with laughter either.
So what the heck happened to Jack's muse?
My guess is that her soul was sold for a crock of gold. The corrupting influence was George MacDonald Fraser and his hugely popular Flashman series. Each new Bandy book became more and more like a Flashman book. That is to say, they became predictable formula fiction exploiting some historical episode. Jack got two more Leacock awards and the Bandy books went on to sell nearly a million copies worldwide.
I had hoped the drama of 1940, when it was all touch-and-go, would restore Jack's muse to grace. But on reflection, that was impossible. There was nothing at all absurd about the Second World War. It was an epic battle between relative good and absolute evil for control of the world, and Canada's contribution to the hard-won victory was not negligible. Jack has reduced it to the level of an extended Royal Canadian Air Farce skit.
Douglas Marshall is the science editor of the Toronto Star. He was the second editor of Books in Canada and its first managing editor.