Set in a suburb of Edmonton, A Tourist's Guide to GlengarryłIan McGillis's gentle, dignified, poignant, and seriously funny first novelł is the narrative of a day in the life of Neil McDonald, a grade four student with an idiot savant's penchant for baseball and music. The book opens with 9-year-old Neil sitting in Irene's, a local diner, on the night of the second game of the 1971 World Series (Pittsburgh Pirates versus Baltimore Orioles). Told from the point of view of Neil's peep-hole consciousness, readers are given a working tour of a kid's brain.
"Just being in Irene's was weird enough. It's this little place over on 82nd Street. They call it a diner, but you don't really see anybody dining in there, unless you call sucking on cigarettes and guzzling coffee dining. It's really a long thin room, like a one room bowling alleyą"
Already, by the third paragraph, we have the tone of the entire novel. The rules of engagementłthat is, Neil's use of languagełare simple and few. Uncomplicated syntax makes for undecorated prose. There is something genuine in the way that Neil turns nouns and verbs into adjectives, churning out words like "whiskery", "dancy", "echoey", and "perfumey" in abundance. Neil involves the reader in some sound association word games here and there, but other than these, the use of slang and the occasional simile count as the only verbal luxuries of his storytelling.
Coming back to the story, it's in Irene's that Neil meets Mr. Baldwin. Mr Baldwin is the kind of teacher some of us were lucky to have: a teacher who is not like most, a teacher the kids can identify with, and who identifies with kids. Neil tells Mr. Baldwin, in confidence, that he is thinking about writing a book ū
"It's one of those things you say and feel stupid about a minute later, but he took me seriously, and ever since he's talked to me like I was a real writer."
Mr. Baldwin offers the "pocket Tolstoy" some sound advice and encouragement to the aspiring writer: "Just tell it as it is." And: "No bodily function is too low, nor any interior musing too lofty."
You would expect this clever frame-story to give McGillis licence to exploit the extremes, from feces to philosophy, with a nanve curtsy to everything in between. Wrong. Neil McDonald is neither puerile nor prophetic. He is a bumbling boy. A haphazard assimilator and accommodator with mainstream interests. And this, I find, is one of the charms of A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry: the kid is average. Rather than casting a trouble-maker or loser for the main role, McGillis plays it down the middle, with a character who is decent and dignified, like his baseball hero Roberto Clemente.
It is one of fiction's clichTs to use the viewpoint of a child to weave a morality tale. In heavy hands, this is nothing less than child labour. To his credit, McGillis avoids the temptation of turning an innocent point of view into a moral compass, one that accusingly turns away from hypocrisy in the adult realm. The latter is a well worn route, a tiresome perversion of genre that conscripts every reader, however poorly qualified, into being a judge .
As already mentioned, A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry pivots on the first night game in World Series history. It also revolves around Neil's compulsive attention to several of his pet interests. In the morning, says Neil: "Three main things were in my head while I went downstairsłthe CHED chart, Roberto Clemente, and the World Series." Neil wanders through his day in an almost hypnotic state, fixated on the trinity of a local radio station's hit list, an elusive baseball card, and the television broadcast of the Pirates-Orioles game. He doesn't suffer from either attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity. It's just that the world is a shop of distractions, and with his attention already wrapped up in his interests, he is often temporarily overwhelmed by what he sees or by what is happening around him. Therefore, obliquely, the book is also about the growing lacunae of his peep-hole vision that causes him, finally, to be blindsided.
McGillis does a good job of reminding us how at Neil's age thought processes seem to form their own magnetic field, somehow transforming what passes through from the abstract into the physical. Baseball cards and player statistics, radio play lists and song chartsłfor Neil these are not just trivia, they are what is jammed into his head. All day they are swirling around in his mind like electrons in a cyclotron. The whole mess is assigned, like particles, significance, and a strange but fathomable atomic weight.
Halfway through the book we follow Neil into the basement of Tommy Winchester's house. Tommy, the son of two draft dodgers, introduces Neil to Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, and the Weed. "Jethro sounded like he was singing with a clothes pin in his nose, and when he played his flute, he did this sort of snort every time he took a breath." This hilarious chapter serves as a review of hippie culture. Here, as elsewhere, McGillis gently nudges the reader and widens the novel's scope to half-embrace themes like the Vietnam War, the FLQ and the October Crisis, Woodstock, the Prague Spring, collective farms in the Ukraine, and life on the prairies awaiting new immigrants to Canada. This information drifts into the narrative via Neil's chats with his friends. Although several seminal events of the late 1960s and early 1970s are pieced together, there is no Forest Gumping, no pastiche of the past used as narrative device. History is limited to the "what does your dad do?" or the "where does your Baba come from?" depth of field. Again, I was glad to see that the author did not put on a parade of the most newsworthy events of the time, and have us watch and listen to Neil's reaction. Neil is not exactly worldly, but he is aware. If not a witness to his time, he is witness to what he cares about.
Whether it's a moment of glory after catching the perfect touch down pass, or realizing that pranks done one month seem old the next, Neil is aware of childhood slipping away even as he's discovering it. "It's kind of sad, when you think about it, how something that was fun can all of a sudden be stupid."
This is not a coming of age story: Neil is only 9 years old. But Neil is growing up and his way of life is subject to change. His fragile ecosystem of grade-school friendships is a function of urban planning: the close proximity and the neat sub-divisional order of friends' houses and their school, the corner store and local churches. McGillis's inclusion, however faint, of background events, from the October crisis to the Prague Spring, make us aware that historical forces, global and national events, acting in concert with other types of changeła child's ordinary growth and maturationłalways threaten to close that precious chapter on childhood in his protagonist's life.
No wonder Neil is devoted to music and his sport heroes. They're the constants in his life. As athletes and musicians strive to be remembered in their respective halls of fame, Neil sets up his own private pantheon of favourite bands and baseball players. His desire for stability is best demonstrated by his adoration of Roberto Clemente. Neil's comments on Clemente, member of the Pittsburgh Pirates' team that went on to win the 1971 world series (he was the MVP), are not the usual fare of statistics and trivia, but observations about the man's dignified conductłhow Clemente doesn't ham it up for the camera like other players, or how Clemente would not answer to reporters calling him Bob, instead of his real name, Roberto. Clemente's solidity of character is something Neil feels he can count on never to change.
Readers will undoubtedly rate Neil among his peers in fiction. They include Huckleberry Finn (14 years old), Holden Caulfield (16 years old), and Paddy Clarke (10 years old). Of the kid-narrated novels to which these characters belongłThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and Paddy Clarke Ha! Ha! Ha!ūMcGillis's work is most like Roddy Doyle's.
Neil is still exploring his world. Unlike Holden Caulfieldłwho sees cruelty and hypocrisy everywherełNeil McDonald is too immersed in his own micro-universe to develop grand gestures or passionate opinions. Tellingly, Holden's word of choice is "phony", whereas Neil's favorites are "weird" and "neat". In fact, A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry opens with Neil's statement, "This is weird."
"Weird" and "neat" are neutral adjectives, but they betray something fundamental about Neil. Together they describe a sense of wonder, which often goes understated, and a certain ambivalence, the root of which is tolerance. With these two words, McGillis keeps himself and his readers on track, and in a genre which too often cedes artistic integrity to clichT, he refrains from playing the judgement card like a phony. ņ
Andrew Steinmetz lives in Montreal. He is the author of Wardlife: The Apprenticeship of a Young Writer as a Hospital Clerk. Recently, he was named the editor of a new fiction series by Vehicule Press.