All the ballyhoo about Canadian character and culture is really just a Toronto thing. For this, McLean's previous book, Welcome Home, is evidence. There on the main streets of small-town Canada (called Main Street or King Street or whatever) was an obvious absence of nationalistic angst. They knew who they were-they were Canadians-and they were comfortable in that knowledge.
McLean has also taken part in a series of books that should be used as raw material for all future constitutional talks, the myriad Morningside-related publications. There again, one witnesses the ease of the Canadian character: filled with the guilt of decency, and the giddiness of restraint.
Dave is a recurring character in this collection. He is the owner of the Vinyl Café in Toronto; he is married to Morley; they have two kids, one just starting hockey, the other a teen. Above his cash register he has a framed motto: "We may not be big. But we're small."
He is not a man filled with surprises. Thankfully, McLean doesn't push him so hard as to make him emblematic of Canada. But he does push him just hard enough to make him his Everyman: a little dull, a little slow, somewhat cowardly, aching to be heroic.
It is Morley who is the take-charge, go-ahead leader of the family. She makes things happen, while Dave dawdles. He worries about things; he screws up and then tries to hide. He is meant to be tragicomic, a little man with big dreams, but he is not that little, nor is he a big dreamer. He is modest in every sense.
There is also Albert, who loses Dorothy to Stanley, a flatulent dog. And Dorothy, who chooses Stanley over Albert. Nobody comes out ahead; Stanley is put to sleep.
They are pathetic people looking for a reason to believe. Dorothy owns Woodsworth's Book Store (named for "the conscience of Canada", J. S. Woodsworth; her dog is named after Stanley Knowles). She grows to hate her work, her shop. She thinks of selling everything, moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake. She waits in her shop for a sign.
There's Ed, who flies to New York City, just to see his favourite musician's widow and child from a distance on the street. Along with Dorothy and Dave, he represents Toronto's middle class, trapped in a standard of living, lost in a concrete world, detached from the streets of Toronto, from its parks and back streets.
They are all reduced to a few stretches of town, parts of Bloor St. and Queen St., to ice cream with the kids on Sunday, to Doc Martens. In her forties, Morley worries about a blemish on her face. She says, "I thought there would be a time between pimples and wrinkles when I'd have a decent complexion. I knew I'd get wrinkles. But I never thought I'd have wrinkles and pimples at the same time."
Where McLean's previous books were exciting and energizing, this one is excited and enervating. The previous ones were journalistic; he has a good ear for the cadence of Canada. He can spot an "eh" at a thousand metres; he can capture the spirit of a place with no bank and two barbers.
And the few stories here that are set outside Toronto are delightful. My favourite is about Flora (one of the two music teachers in her town), who worries about desecrating her husband's memory, but regrets not giving a man called George a try after her husband died.
She needs a small act of contrition, of love. And she finds it. Why? I suggest it's simply because she is not in Toronto. In Drumboldt, "when you are living alone, and the winter is cold, and you heat by wood, you do what you can do."
Toronto is a screwed-up city. It is comfortable and closed, navel-gazing and self-satisfied. The only difference between the city and Stuart McLean's characters is that they are not self-satisfied.
Some have chastised this collection for being cute, but I would have been content with cuteness. What's worse is that McLean is safe. For example, Dave sends away for Sea Monkeys, to bond with his daughter, and to re-live his youth (or perhaps, to at last live his youth).
" `Here we go,' said Dave, dumping the powder into the aquarium. `Life.'
"Dave was joking but not completely-part of him actually felt liberated, released. He was completing something."
Stuart McLean has a big heart, to his detriment. He doesn't want his characters to suffer much. He walls them in quickly, cocoons them, brings them solace.
Which is a pity, because I like these people. I like Dave (and developed a bit of a crush on Morley). I would love to see them roam freely-to have McLean let them explore what they need. The Toronto middle class is not as safe or as cute as is implied in this book.
Granted, stories like these don't need to be heavy and dark. But they must capture the self-conscious, self-depreciating Torontonian angst. For added measure, they must be distant while navel-gazing, amused while amazed.
To be merely cute and safe is too ugly a cliché of this country. Stuart McLean flirts with that cliché. And Stories from the Vinyl Café is left with wrinkles and pimples at the same time.
Andrew Faiz is probably the only immigrant from the Punjab to have been a Presbyterian minister in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. He is chair of Neighbourhood Services in Flemingdon Park, North York, Ontario.