An Innocent in Newfoundland: Even More Curious Rambles and Singular Encounters

by David Mcfadden
ISBN: 0771055358

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A Review of: An Innocent In Newfoundland: Even More Curious Rambles and Singular Encounters
by Gordon Phinn

Over the years that have yellowed into three, nearly four, decades of whimsical yet devoted information delivery, David McFadden has perfected the art of the low profile. Not an impossible task in the small, and some would say shallow, pond of CanLit, but one that does take a certain amount of camouflaged determination. Not only can he walk round his tony Toronto neighbourhood unrecognised and fancy-free, but just about anywhere else as well. Though par for the course for almost any poet, such anonymity is as sweet for the travel writer as it is for the restaurant reviewer.
Though his vision is one of calm delicacy and charm, a mottled cork Buddha bobbing in the waters as the wakes of best sellers and Big Important Books wash over him, he pursues it with a doggedness which belies its elfin glee. A prophet of the small and seemingly insignificant, he repeatedly secures our praise and trust by embracing the prickly grouch with the same love as the appealingly eccentric.
Yes, rain or shine, war or peace, in or out of confederation, he continues to issue a fine book of poetry or prose every couple of years. A zen master with a true feel for the actual and a taste for the surreal, he surveys the landscape, both physical and psychic, with a gaze that is both unblinking and cured in kindness.
His current incarnation, as storyteller-on-the-road, is perhaps the most opulent display yet devised of his skittish charm and waggish humour. After tours of Ireland and Scotland, both celebrations of all things Celtic, from public drunkenness to standing stones, he is proudly back on home turf, taking a spin around the Rock one recent spring.
Wisely touching down before the annual influx of tourists, he takes his one-man vision, with us as ever so willing victims, on a sort of carpe diem cruise through the various myths of Newfoundland, as Canadians have come to inhabit them, awarding merit badges and dunce caps as he sees fit. And despite being a stranger from that dismal capital of the alien universe, Toronto, he's as comfortable here as anywhere else.
"Toss a dart at the map of Canada/where it lands is where you'll find me," he wrote in On The Road Again in 1978, and it still applies today. A dart lands in St. John's, in Gander, in Port Aux Basques, in L'Anse aux Meadows, on a mountainside, by a lake, inside a Royal Canadian Legion, and McFadden is there, as happily clumsy as a clam in chowder, waiting to be eaten by the first unsuspecting walk-on. With a small suitcase of props he's a master of disguise in the garb of innocence, and he can slide in anywhere like the veritable greenhorn, to be buoyed up by what G.K. Chesterton once called "the hospitality of circumstance." And he surfs all its moment to moment surprises in the blithe spirit of a con man on a mission from god.
It would seem that the current trilogy of travels, the Innocent series, has done for McFadden what the Great Lakes series could not: provide him with a sizeable audience; that is, a readership over and above the cognoscenti of CanLit who regarded Coach House, his first home, as the last word in post-modern belles lettres, and who would eat their young rather than admit they liked anything commercial. McFadden's pulse of irony, surrealistic flights of fancy, and the then fashionably fierce anti-Americanism was just the right fit for that late seventies crew of literary nationalists. But Coach House, though a druggy and hand-out dependent lot, were honourable and dedicated artisans who never could really be bothered to figure out how to actually sell books outside of their circle of associates, and McFadden, though known and oft celebrated, seemed forever condemned to cult status.
It was a position he seemed not uncomfortable in. Though M&S published his major poetry collections from 1972's Intense Pleasure on, he did not take advantage of this prestigious connection to pump out a couple of the more mainstream fictions that might have established him in the nation's, rather than the literati's, psyche. Like his left coast buddy Bowering, he much preferred to pursue post-modern fictive weirdness, like Animal Spirits (Coach House 1983) and Canadian Sunset (Black Moss 1986). Some, like Brian Fawcett in his BiC profile of over a decade ago (reprinted in Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times: New Star 1991) thought this perverse. It is certainly not hard to see McFadden as an imp of the perverse. But it is limiting.
Those of us who waited patiently for the great, wide canvas social portrait of Hamilton through the century were to be disappointed. Perhaps we were foolishly grooming ourselves for despair. Perhaps McFadden's surreal zen sensibility would never have been successfully grafted onto the nineteenth century narrative forms the soon-to-be-icons were repeatedly crafting for what seemed to be an emerging and protected market. Doubtlessly McFadden, Bowering and their experiment-prone colleagues, saw themselves as local reps of a vast international vanguard who would gradually coerce the reading public out of their appetite for craftily plotted narrative and character development and into the tropical jungle of texture and language so blessedly free of motivation and action that they themselves were much beholden to.
Of course the revolution never actually found a place to happen. The CanLit dream of a market died on the drawing board, and along with the removal of the Trudeau-era arts funding largess, this left writers and publishers, as Victor Coleman once memorably said, like junkies without methadone, and promoted a new paranoia that CanLit, never to be distributed or sold worldwide, would die on the vine. Of course, curmudgeons like John Metcalf would claim that it had never blossomed in the first place, suggesting that a crash course in British style mavens such as Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh was the only recourse for such a diseased body poetic. Happily only Russell Smith took him at his word.
Fortunately for the rest of us outside the grant-funded loop, a heretofore unseen era of agents, Frankfurt Book Fairs and Booker prizes plopped on our doormats. Reputations were made, newspapers and bureaucrats delighted, and let's face it, a startling number of books sold. It's a new world for a new generation of Canadian readers and writers, as many of whom arrive, with the cultural baggage of Bombay, Bejing, Cape Town and Belgrade, at Portage La Prairie and Peggy's Cove. Stories about a boy and his dog growing up in Goose Neck, Sask. now seem as passe as yarns about disaffected coke whores at suburban warehouse raves. Happily, McFadden, in his search for growth, has essayed neither. And happily, for his fans, little but rough edges have been smoothed over in his contented drift towards the mainstream.
Those returning from decades of being sensible with mortgages and such might fret at the sight of the conventional covers of his Innocent series. Has he, gulp, sold out? I, for one, do not think so. In moving upmarket he has sacrificed only the most gruesome and belligerent of his obsessions, leaving a gaiety less encumbered by anger and a fancy more free when not fired by resentment. Barbed irascibility is at a minimum; humour is somehow less invasive, and insight glides rather than prods. The zen master no longer whacks the student into enlightenment. Tea and chat is served first, and the blows are mere tickles to loosen vanity and prejudice.
Though fear of formula may dog both his book proposals and antsy older fans, I sense the suppleness and serenity of age suits the maturing poet, who may not only yet bless us with lyrics worthy of Yeats, but planet wide wanderings as winsome and weathered as any down the years.

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