Barrel-House Kings:
A Memoir

by Barry Callaghan,
308 pages,
ISBN: 0316124060

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The Tap-tap of the Remington, the Tip-tip of the Boxer's Jab
by Austin Clarke

Portrait-painting is a difficult art, as Lord Butler, former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, reminded us in his 1967 Romanes Lectures: "But the self-portrait, whether through the medium of a mirror or of a book, is even more so. [Samuel] Johnson himself warned us how difficult it was for a man to write about himself: and his warning must have derived partly from direct experience. For he had actually written a record of his own life, later destroyed in the presence of his negro servant."

(Just in parenthesis, could the "presence of his negro servant" have been the ringing of the alarm that pointed to the danger? There is more than a pinch of irony here.)

Memoir, like autobiography, is very often a plateau of reminiscences, a replaying of events, a chronicling of visits and situations that come into and go through one's life. How these are arranged either gives the picture, or adds to the ego of the memoirist and autobiographer. Lord Butler offers a warning: "In the first place, egotism is not the only or even the main enemy with which the truthful autobiographer must struggle. An author may, indeed, be too egotistical, in which case his method of presentation reflects too much of his own personality and too little of the veracity of the situation."

What application does this warning have to Barry Callaghan's Barrelhouse Kings-to the memoir of Morley the father by that athlete son, that television reporter, that literary reporter, and bon vivant? From the first dark night, after a carousal into the underworld bounded by Spadina Avenue and College Street, going perhaps farther south, and into darker darkness down to Dundas, the young man comes home, and sees the permanency and respectability of the writer at the same noiseless Remington typewriter, the same solid Rosedale respectability, as a kind of contrast to the temporarily wallowed-in extravagances of the netherworld of "Negro music", of jazz and rhythm-and-blues and dipsy-doodlings with persons of proven, and yet-to-be-proven satisfactory, pulchritude. Because of the pleasure and the satisfaction of that experience, we could have expected the author to wallow in the situation. Instead, we are amazed by the balance, and the absence of chastisement and victimization in the chosen visits and situations and, I might add, personalities and persons.

Barrelhouse Kings eschews the other extreme into which a memoirist can be mired: "the author may be too little personal and not fulfill the requirement of an artistic whole in which self is predominant".

At some points, one feels that Barrelhouse Kings could have come to a moral conclusion, putting the respective situation into a more "personal" context, to "fulfill the requirement of an artistic whole". In other words, coming on stronger with the confrontations of authors of international renown; hammering down a political position about the Palestine visit; lambasting apartheid in South Africa. In spite of this feeling, the author averts the danger of "predominant self" and gives scope instead. It is the scope, the breadth, the span of visits and situations, which is literary requirement, a standard now.

It is no point of literary significance to say that Barrelhouse Kings is a self-portrait of literary or personal "showboating". Authors of lesser ability have demonstrated larger egos. But how in the name of God or of Morley can a man write a memoir of that time-the Sixties, really-when culture and literature and sociology of the first immigration were the factors that helped to form a nascent nationalism? The Sixties, whose apprehension is essential to the quality and character of life we now endure in this city-once a plateau of severe Anglo-Saxon stiffness, and so it seemed, a determined suicide of pleasure and communal happiness? How can he dare face this epoch in memoir, and not have an ego?

"Some degree of egoism is essential to autobiography", Lord Butler says. And I agree with him. And it is good, too, that, apparently, Callaghan shares this point of view. But there are reservations: an author may overdo it, and "may be not only too ready to praise or exaggerate his own talents and successes, but also too prone to drop a veil over his humiliation and eccentricities".

Callaghan must have read this sentiment of Lord Butler's, for in the episode of his arrest and threatened execution by terrorists, and his witnessing of the shellings and the violence, the veil that might have covered "his humiliation and eccentricities" has been ripped off, and we have, in the concluding brushes of that self-portrait, this very touching language:

The army was shelling the five-story [sic] insane asylum on Webda Hill, one pounding eruption after another. Trees fell. A body spun like a rag doll from the roof. Or maybe it was a rag doll, a madman's toy, the insane trapped inside, huddled along the walls of their corridors, calm, unruffled, talking for the first time of the good old days that had been long forgotten, suddenly at ease with themselves, the thunder of the outside world matching the thunder inside their heads, knowing for sure what they had known all along, that they were sane. Hysterical hens, eggs, eggs, more eggs, commando bodies, embers, glowing beside their burial ornaments, brass shell casings, and Ibrahim, seated in a sculpted calm, finally went to sleep.

The author could have been at least "reticent" about this situation. His portrait of the house of madmen is more a matter of self-defense against assumptions than it is an example of self-admiration. Barrelhouse Kings has, however, contradicted the advice of Dostoevsky, that "every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends". We are fortunate indeed that Callaghan has spilled the beans, so to speak. And we are richer for it.

Perhaps this was in the back of his mind, all those dark nights of internal darkness when he returned from those forays, and faced his father, Morley, bent everlastingly over the noisy "noiseless" Remington 12 by 14, working at the intractable prose. That he knew that time erases those memories of licentiousness, and replaces the Epicureanism with a more natural Rosedale puritanical condition. That he, too, would choose the quiet and the torment and the endless days of the tap-tap-tap-tap of the Remington, for the linament-soaked tip-tip-tip-tip of the boxer's jab, or the musical dribbling of the basketball.

We, too, must return to the house, where it all began. The house creaks, and in the sounds that come more clearly from the small, sacrosanct study at the front, we hear Morley's voice, and his short coughings as he tests the strength of his tobacco in his pipe; and we hear the clacking of the tap-tap-tap-tap. From this room, there is a passage, straight in its history to the room that looks out into the garden. This is the passage, imaginary as it is, that is the path that gives direction and definition both to the house and to the new memoirist who lives here.

The house is important. The house is the context. A cartoon drawn by Steinberg stands like a tombstone next to a William Ronald painted in the violent colour and movement of instantaneous execution. And there is the more soothing portrait of Billie Holiday, more beautiful in face than declarative in her lyrics. And in spite of everything, there is Claire Wiesman-Hyphen, captured at a moment of exquisite beauty, at a time when this rage of memoir and reminiscence and reticence were all mixed into the personality of the author. Claire is on a wall opposite Billie. This suggests order and place. Beauty and music. The arrangement of stability of life and experience in Barrelhouse Kings. 

Austin Clarke is a writer who lives sometimes in Toronto and sometimes in Italy.


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