An Innocent in Newfoundland: Even More Curious Rambles and Singular Encounters|
by David Mcfadden
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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
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.