||The Cuban Realm
by Gordon Phinn
David McFadden has always been partial to a bit of a jaunt. He just loves to open himself
to the spirit of place and embrace all the sentient beings he discovers there, or at least as
many as he can stuff into his suitcase-sized heart. In this he is as much a bodhisattva of
the commonplace and curmudgeonly as a fancier of the elfin and ineffable.
During the eighties he determined to drive himself and his family around the Great
Lakes, lapping up as many insights and chuckles as his self-consciously hip audience¨
momentarily released from the relentless barrage of their contemporaries'
avantgardisms¨was ready, willing, and able to handle. The recent reissue of the lot
under the rubric Great Lakes Suite (Talonbooks 2002) confirms that his unique
illumination of the then Canadian zeitgeist was as potent a rendering as say, Hunter
Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas a decade earlier. Fortunately for the
anonymity-loving McFadden, the modest trilogy's original market penetration was
effectively choked by the likes of Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.
Though eccentric in intention and haphazard in execution, the account of his
peregrinations en famille certainly charmed the socks off the cognoscenti of the day,
confirming the robe-free zen master status already suggested by the quixotic snapshots
and surreal legends of his poetry. During that period, before the grant-funded heroics of
CanLit nationalism were deflated into the grinding realities of the international
marketplace, George Bowering cast him as "everyone's favourite poet"; however sunnily
naive that epithet may sound now, back then it had the bite of truth. For a brief period, in
volumes like On The Road Again, McFadden seemed suddenly able to charm the national
psyche out of its prairie basket and have it dance to an ironic new tune.
In the nineties he launched the now well-known Innocent series, exhuming his, and our
Celtic heritage with visits to Ireland, Scotland and Newfoundland. Initially inspired by
the once famous and now neglected H.V. Morton's "In Search Of" series, which
entertained the masses from the nineteen thirties onward, he dutifully followed routes and
impersonated attitudes, only gradually emerging from the master's psychic shadow to
become, by the third book, very much his own man. By then he was more a philosophical
entertainer than an inciter of consciousness; this was a basic reinvention of himself as the
charmingly baffled armchair raconteur, drink and chuckle in hand. Once championed by
those with enquiring minds and discerning haircuts, he now fell helplessly into the hands
of the print imbibing mainstream and anyone with some spare time and a library card.
Fortunately, each book of the series was a rollicking good read. McFadden, seemingly
emptied of attitude and prejudice, merely rambles, running smack into whatever happens
next. It's a delightfully unfocused way to treat experience, and the reader is thus lightly
chaperoned through the giddiness and goofiness of the unexpected. On his approach,
McFadden once wrote, "I was aiming at a sort of purity, random and anonymous."
Indeed, whether in pub, chapel, ruin or seashore, he apes the everyman and encounters
everything, with the outrageous and hilarious most often resulting. Be forewarned, these
are books one finds oneself hooting at in public places.
All this Celtic conviviality and silliness is revamped, in culturally specific fashion, for his
new trek around Cuba (let's hope the first in a Caribbean trilogy). Older and wiser now
he may claim to be, but the wackiness continues unabated. Strangers hammer on his hotel
door at five am. Other strangers jump into his rental car, hoping for a free ride. Every
second female seeks paid assignations. Many plead hungry families, poor wages and non-
existent babies who require gallons of milk. Ever the good socialist, McFadden prefers
offering free meals to receiving finance-dependent lubricity. Like the rest of us
embarrassed first-worlders, he finds a dollar goes a long way down there.
His blue collar roots are no secret to Canadian readers, but he wisely refrains from
allowing his socialist utopianisms from morphing into the tiresome lefty earnestness of
some of his liberal fellow travellers. On several occasions he even manages to poke fun at
his own cherished ideals: "One can be a good socialist without wanting to have uninvited
people in his car, his house, or his bed.z'
If you wish to discover the real dirt on the Elian Gonzalez affair, or who is actually the
worst gangster, Batista, Castro or Bush, you will have to look farther afield¨say in
Louise Bardach's Cuba Confidential¨for trendy political poses are not struck here.
Suffering humanity, in all its silliness and striving, is McFadden's focus. For as well as
relinquishing "the perilous and frivolous excitement that lies in the lower chakras,"
McFadden has firmly turned his back on "the raptures of youth" and is now "on the
lookout for deeper raptures, like the rapture of not giving a damn about rapture any
more." These days he's more likely to tell you where to get the best pizza, beer or baked
And although he tries hard not to give a damn, his compassionate nature just won't let
him quit. He's always going out of his way to supply food and drink to even the most
casual of acquaintances, and when he's not overtipping he's overpraising. On one
memorable occasion, a bowl of poisonous soup engenders a grateful spiel for the guilty
waitress. Naturally, the penitents of the Communist retreat can spot a sucker like that a
mile off and the author is compelled to raise his voice on more than one occasion. One
gets the distinct impression that his embarrassment is equaled only by his delectation of
it. The relentless and invasive offers of chicas of all ages is perhaps the greatest source of
amusement, and would continue to be in retrospect, were it not so indicative of a culture
on its knees. McFadden's big heart is obviously saddened by such a prospect, this serpent
in his dream of the perfect egalitarian society, but his impish humour always gets the
better of him. A chica may be valued at less then a "mouldy cigar", but just there, on the
statue of General Calixto, look, "the crotch area is all dark and greasy, making him
appear as if he'd just wet his pants."
And if you've been nursing what some would consider a naive penchant for a traveller
who gets lost more often than he finds himself, someone who revels in being pickled in
paradoxes such as "They're so nervous they're causing me to be nervous about not being
nervous enough", then McFadden's the innocent for you. And not quite so rapture free as
he would have you think.