A CELEBRATION OF THE NOVELS
OF RICHARD B. WRIGHT
The London Yodeller (3.16) AUGUST 6, 2015
By Herman Goodden
IN 1970 AT THE AGE OF 18 I happened upon an American edition of Richard B. Wright’s very first novel, The Weekend Man, remaindered for 99 cents at Coles, and read it in one delirious go, thus commencing my four and a half decades-long campaign to spread the good word on my favourite Canadian writer. Fifteen years my elder, Wright’s novelistic career was getting underway at the same moment as I was just beginning to see myself as a writer. Our styles, backgrounds, preoccupations and ambitions hardly overlapped which was perhaps a blessing as I otherwise might have, consciously or otherwise, imitated him. Instead I have regarded him all these years as a sort of elder brother in the trade; a writer whose work I love and esteem and whose progress I have tracked with fraternal interest as he has turned out 12 superb novels; always wishing the world would do a better job of valuing him at his worth.
Wright’s greatest strength has always been the uncanny verisimilitude of his storytelling – both the all too credible incidents he writes about and the flawlessly natural prose in which his tales are rendered. Wright’s is an unflashy gift too readily overlooked in an age when the hyper-poetic prose of a Michael Ondaatje or a Jane Urquhart tends to scoop up all of the prizes. His stories of contemporary Ontario life are routinely populated by likable, thoughtful, middle-aged types who never quite manage to take hold of the steering wheel of their lives; because of a complexity they can’t deny, a decency they won’t discard, a haunted disconnect between a remembered past and a not so luminous present reality or just a wicked sense of humour that can’t be suppressed.
The Weekend Man set the Wright template. Thirty year-old textbook salesman Wes Wakeham is estranged from his overbearing wife and feeling markedly ambivalent at the prospect of a reconciliation. While not exactly jubilant with his quasi-single status, he has nonetheless found ways to make life a little more interesting outside of Molly’s too controlling orbit - even if it only means taking a different route to his job each morning depending on which slip of directions he picks out of a repurposed peanut butter jar. A weekend man such as himself he explains, “is a person who has abandoned the present in favour of the past or the future. He is really more interested in what happened to him twenty years ago or in what is going to happen to him next week than he is in what is happening to him today. If the truth were known, nothing much happens to most of us during the course of our daily passage. It has to be said. Unless we are test pilots or movie stars, most of us are likely to wake up tomorrow morning to the same ordinary flatness of our lives. This is not really such a bad thing. It is probably better than fighting off a sabre-tooth tiger at the entrance to the cave. But we weekend men never leave well enough alone. First off we must cast about for a diversion. A diversion is anything that removes us from the ordinary present.”
At novel’s end, about to give another chance to a marriage that he suspects is still fundamentally knackered, Wakeham muses: “Molly believes that the only reason I am not successful is because I am willfully opposed to worldly success. In her eyes I am a thwarted idealist who has difficulty coming to terms with life as it is lived in our day and age. This is not so. I am not opposed to worldly success and am no more a thwarted idealist than a pygmy’s uncle. The truth is that I am not a success because I cannot think straight for days on end, bemused as I am by the weird trance of this life and the invisible passage of time.”
The prototypical Wright character is hemmed in both by the demands and expectations of others and his or her own over-riding awareness of the implacable inevitability of fate; a bone-deep knowledge that however much they might like to see things turn out this way or that, life probably has other plans. There is a rich understanding of family dynamics in all of his books, an appreciation of how in passing on their gifts and attributes our parents both equip us and in a way unfit us to deal with life. This is especially highlighted in the perfectly tuned opening paragraphs of Wright’s eighth novel from 1995, The Age of Longing, the book which I consider to be the best of a very good lot. This scene succinctly sets up the struggle that editor Howard Wheeler will be dealing with all of his life, trying to reconcile the two sides of his biological heritage – the priggish but dependable school teacher mother whose careful, measured approach to all things makes a sustained existence possible yet makes life scarcely worth living – and his impulsive father who recklessly reached for the stars as a hockey player and failed, thus unfitting himself for day to day existence.
“When I was three or four years old, I used to look for the Stanley Cup in my mother’s china cabinet. This search arose from perhaps my earliest memory: my father is holding me under one arm while I grip the basin of a drinking fountain in Little Lake Park. With his free hand, my father presses the lever, and looking down I am both astonished and delighted by the cold water gushing from the white mica ball. Around me are the cries and laughter of the bathers and my mother’s voice, insistent and hectoring, the voice of the schoolteacher who is used to issuing instruction or admonition.
“‘Be careful, Ross! Don’t let his mouth touch that!’
“For my mother, polio germs lurked everywhere, but especially in places touched by the lips of strangers. Drinking thirstily, I hear too the voices of children nearby.
“‘That’s Buddy Wheeler. He played for Montreal and he won the Stanley Cup.’
“They are talking about the man who is holding me, my father. And where then was this cup he had won? Why was it not with the other cups in the kitchen cupboard or the china cabinet? Of course, those children got it slightly wrong as most of us do when we hear stories. My father did play four games in the National Hockey League with Montreal. But it was the year after they won the Stanley Cup. And I am referring to a team that is now only a glimmering memory for a few old people. They were called the Maroons.”
(One wonders if Wright, like me, ever used to hear the word ‘maroon’ used as a term of abuse; when you were tired of calling someone a garden variety ‘moron’ and wanted to renew it with an exotic new lustre?)
Writers are often exhorted to write about what they know. The main characters in Wright’s books, and the parents of the main characters, are frequently teachers and professors, writers, journalists and editors and folks who work in the publishing trade. Born in Midland, Wright himself worked briefly in Toronto journalism and then spent a decade working for the publishing houses of Macmillan and Oxford University Press. No small part of his appeal for me is his insider’s understanding of the thrill and the frustrations of the writing life. His second novel, 1973’s In The Middle of a Life (which picked up the Faber Fiction Award in Britain) presents a brutally funny portrait of a blocked up writer driving his increasingly sceptical wife around the twist with his capacity to kid himself that he’s making real progress on a book that has spiralled completely out of his control.
Again from The Age of Longing, here Wright gives us the editor’s perspective on a writer who just doesn’t have it anymore. Howard Wheeler, is now an aging, old school editor impervious to new trends who’s being squeezed out of his job by the arrogant new brooms who’ve taken over the firm. Recovering from a heart attack while back in his old home town settling the estate of his recently deceased mother, Wheeler has been given the job of vetting an immense and turgid dud of a manuscript submitted by Charles Pettinger, a once popular and innovative writer who’s disappeared so far up his own ass that the firm wants nothing more to do with him.
“Pettinger’s novel is a shattering disappointment. I read until two o’clock this morning, heartsick at the lifelessness of it all. It saddens me beyond telling to report that his new book is a turbid sermon on the collapse of hope in our century. The vitality and wit so evident in his two earlier books have vanished, replaced by humourless rhetoric and dire warnings about the evils of technology. His characters cannot open their mouths without delivering major statements. The book has no narrative energy; only a bleak message that translates roughly into ‘I told you so.’ And the confounded man has been working on this for nearly twenty years! Think of it if you can bear to! Twenty years! Now he sits in his farmhouse awaiting news from the publisher. Trembling with excitement. Sick with nerves and anticipation. Dying for that treble scotch which he has forsworn these past several years on medical advice. Can anyone with a heart not wish the man well?”
The only near-constant element in Wright’s novels that doesn’t seem to be drawn from his real life are the marriages. Wright’s fictional marriages are nearly always in crisis while, to all appearances, his own has held up commendably from the day he married Phyllis Cotton in 1966. They have two adult sons and 2010’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard, the most recent of his twelve novels, is dedicated to Phyllis and “our newest grandson, Nathan”. One possible reason for the success of his marriage is that, unlike a lot of his authorial characters, the ever-sensible Wright realized and accepted that he would not be able to make his way on the avails of novel writing alone – though there was a period of five or so years when he gave that his best shot and the collapse of that scheme must have necessitated a sobering, if not discouraging, readjustment.
Wright stopped working in publishing in 1970 and attended Trent University, earning his B.A. in English two years later, thereby equipping himself to take on a full time position teaching English at Ridley College. Except for his half-decade escape in the early ‘80s, this was a position he held until his retirement. Established in 1889, Ridley is a private Anglican boarding school, a university prep school, situated on 108 acres of parkland and includes among its roll of notable alumni, London’s Hume Cronyn. Girls – a small sampling of 11 at first, just to see if they worked out - were finally admitted to Ridley in 1973, right around the time that Wright first turned up there to teach.
A dependable day job not only spares a writer the wild vicissitudes which invariably trouble those who depend on art to sustain them, it also – and I expect this was crucially important to Wright’s independent temperament – leaves him free to follow his own instincts and preferences without having to re-jig those instincts so that they align with the current literary zeitgeist in whatever form it happens to take that week. Of course many writers with demanding (or even not so demanding) day jobs have had their literary ambitions frustrated, dissipated and then abandoned when they have to parcel out their attention and their energy in such a bifurcated way. But the very disciplined Wright made it his routine to rise as early as five a.m. to give the best and sharpest part of his day to writing before going off to commence a full day’s teaching at Ridley.
The Weekend Man and In The Middle of a Life - a more mature and grounded and wonderfully funny novel whose main character named Fred Landon (also the name of a Forest City teacher and historian who loaned his name to our Wortley Road Library) always makes Londoners do a double take - were products of Wright’s years in the publishing biz. Then came Farthing’s Fortunes from his first run at Ridley, the longest and least typical book of Wright’s entire career; a sprawling picaresque romp that follows an itinerant roustabout who traverses the globe in search of lost love and fortune and like some ancient precursor to Forrest Gump or Woody Allen’s Zelig, has a knack for turning up in far flung locales at historically significant moments. I remember enjoying it very much when it was first published but it’s not a book I’m ever tempted to return to.
The inventiveness and the drive are undeniable but the story feels a little donnish (“See how much I know about history?”) and too consciously manipulated. And, I’m sorry to say, I feel much the same about his much slighter effort of 2010; a speculative imagining of the Bard’s early life, Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard that also feels as if its content has been cribbed rather than lived. The effortlessness and naturalness I value in a novel by Wright were highlighted by The New York Times reviewer of The Weekend Man who wrote: “Mr. Wright writes with the apparent ease of breathing, and he is both touching and very, very funny because you do not catch him trying.”
The first fruit of Wright’s independence was 1980’s Final Things, by far the most violent book in the Wright canon. Taking his inspiration (if that’s the right word) from the horrific molestation and murder of a Toronto shoeshine boy caught up in a pedophile ring, the novel’s 150 very tightly printed pages constitute a nightmarish descent into a sordid world where for infantile considerations of profit, children - to an extent - offer themselves up to be exploited by immoral monsters. The boy’s parents are already divorcing when the unthinkable happens and projections of the guilt that each of them feel for letting their only child slip out of their care are added to the usual recriminations of any disintegrating couple.
Next up was 1982’s The Teacher’s Daughter. Crime is an element in this novel too – a badly botched bank heist – but the real focus is an ardently desired but wildly unsuitable and ultimately impossible love affair between two lonely people who cannot shake off the conditioning and assumptions of their widely disparate backgrounds to create any ground of common understanding where they will be able to live together. We may like to believe that here in the new world, citizens are not sequestered by impregnable class divisions but The Teacher’s Daughter makes a very strong case that although our signifiers of distinction might be different than those that pertain elsewhere, we too are class riddled.
The longest gap ever between Wright novels was the six years between 1984’s Tourists (the last book of his occupational independence) and 1990’s Sunset Manor (the first book after his return to Ridley). I’m just speculating here but can’t help wondering if Wright, foreseeing and dreading the possibility of such a return, wasn’t engaging in a little pre-emptive bridge-burning in writing Tourists which gleefully mocks the antiquarian ethos of schools like Ridley via its narrator, Philip Bannister; an officious snob of an English master at an exclusive boy’s prep school who murders his unfaithful wife and a hideous American couple she’s fallen in with (deliciously named Ted and Corky Hacker) while on vacation in Mexico.
Tourists is the wildest, broadest comedy Wright has so far written with Bannister delivering exquisitely rendered bon mots of breathtaking bigotry: “I had remarked to my wife that the stolid brown little women in their long dresses and shawls looked as durable as large chess pieces. I imagined that people with such a low centre of gravity would be very difficult to tip over in a scrap.” In the right hands (like an updated Ealing Studios) Tourists would make a fabulously funny movie but the uniformly uncomprehending and disapproving reviews in the papers that I saw – like some dreadful advance guard of the PC police at their most humourless and obtuse – gormlessly wondered if this was really the sort of book that an author who wanted to be taken seriously should be writing.
Sunset Manor is perhaps the most serene of all Richard Wright’s novels. There are no collapsing marriages or serious crimes to drive along this gently comedic and often touching study of a retired, spinster teacher of English who (assisted by a kitchen fire caused by her careless smoking) comes to recognize that it is time to place herself in the care of a retirement facility. We get to know a fairly large cast of characters and marvel at how the old fires of vanity, appetite and pride still burn away in the hearts of Miss Ormsby and her fellow residents. The primary struggle of the book is between Miss Ormsby and the facility’s administrators and medical staff. Having devoted her life and career to artful and truthful expression, she is not about to chuck that now and submit to all their evasive happy talk about what lies ahead for the residents. Not only does she refuse to heed her doctor’s advice to “forget all this nonsense about death”; she knows that “only by thinking of death can one come to value and enjoy life.”
You know my high regard for 1995’s The Age of Longing. If you’ve only got time to read one of his books, make it this one. It wasn’t reviewed widely, didn’t sell fabulously but did pick up a couple nominations for Canadian literary prizes. Then Wright’s ship of good fortune finally came through in 2001 for his ninth novel, Clara Callan. After decades of critical neglect, so-so commercial sales, and nary a sniff from movie producers, this quietly stubborn and utterly original writer suddenly won every Canadian literary prize worth having – the Governor General’s, the Giller and the Trillium. Those of us who had been flagging Wright’s greatness for decades couldn’t help wondering - why now? Why this book in particular?
This tale of two sisters from small town Ontario who struggle to make their very different ways through early adulthood in the 1930s - one as a teacher in the school where her recently deceased father was principal, the other as an actress in American radio soap operas - was celebrated for its insights into its female characters and the evocation of their voices, all conveyed by their letters and journals. But Wright had done that before; one of his more sustained explorations of the female psyche being Sunset Manor’s Kaye Ormsby. Also commended was his grasp and easy integration of early 20th century details and atmospheres but again, all that was beautifully handled in The Age of Longing. I was so mystified by Clara Callan’s success, I think I downplayed its value – rather like a teenager who gets petulant when some obscure band he’s loved for years suddenly lands a number one hit and is taken up by everyone. I revisited it over Christmas this year and was won over anew by its power and beauty. It is indeed one of his very best books. Those prizes were no fluke.
In the wake of this orgy of long overdue awards, Wright’s by then extensive back catalogue was all reprinted and while his readership was enlarged, sales were not phenomenal. He has not entered that pantheon of household name status where writers such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro imperturbably reside. Three years later when his next novel, Adultery, was published, his publishers expected a much larger audience which wasn’t there. I was heartsick when CBC’s The National ran a story about trouble in the publishing/bookselling industry, showing huge stacks of Adultery heading into the pulper. It just hadn’t moved like everybody thought it would and nor has anything else in the Wrightian canon. A gripping examination of the appalling fallout of a meaningless fling, I remember walking into town on an errand of some kind during my first read-through of Adultery and being so relieved to realize that this all-encompassing gloom and anguish I was feeling was all because of the brilliantly effective book I was currently reading; that I personally was off the hook and life was good. It is the most claustrophobically menacing book that Wright has written since Final Things.
The last novel that I will comment on here is the aptly titled October from 2007; Wright’s most sustained meditation on death. It tells the story of retired professor, James Hillyer, who is reeling with the fatal diagnosis of a beloved daughter (who is dying of the same illness that carried off his wife) when a wealthy, manipulative, and now painfully afflicted friend from his youth for whom he’s always had ambivalent feelings requests that Hillyer accompany him to a special Swiss clinic where he intends to cut short his suffering life. Weaving reflections of his own complicated coming of age with all these present day intimations of mortality, it is often the dying themselves who provide Hillyer with the perspective to accept things as they apparently have to be. Even the grimmest of Wright’s tales are never without moments of humour and grace and October is no exception.
In his wonderfully insightful entry on Wright in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, the late Tom Tauskey of Western quoted from Wright’s then most recent novel, The Age of Longing, to say that a common quality with many of Wright’s main characters (no heroes here) was that they were “psychologically cornered by the prospect of finitude.” Let me quote the full passage. This is Howard Wheeler again from The Age of Longing talking about Charles Pettinger’s writing before he lost his gift:
“The stories are both funny and serious and they represent a genuine attempt to understand the difficulties of living in a post-Christian world in the last quarter of the century. The characters in these stories are not only baffled by the moral emptiness of materialism but also psychologically cornered by the prospect of finitude. Yet they somehow endure. Pettinger has been labelled with some justification as Canada’s Walker Percy, though, of course, Pettinger hasn’t been nearly as prolific as the late Southern novelist.”
Picking up on a reference dropped in an interview from early in the career of the media-averse Wright in which he said that he had been influenced in his writing by Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Tauskey makes it clear that in this passage in which one of Wright’s characters writes about the writing of another of his characters, Wright is in fact telling us something about how he sees his own mission as a writer. (And in the explosive moral rage that concludes 1980’s Final Things I’ve long wondered if Wright hadn’t been influenced by Percy’s Lancelot.) Percy – a loner, an outsider, a fearlessly funny philosophical existentialist as surely as Wright – was in the process of converting to Roman Catholicism while writing The Moviegoer and the faith informed his many subsequent novels. Faith didn’t make everything better for Percy but it did provide him with armour for the fight. Wright has never had this and still has soldiered on, creating a body of work that I consider more courageously insightful than that of any other Canadian author.
There’s an account of a televised Christmas Eve mass in The Weekend Man that is pretty scathing and in The Age of Longing there’s a pompous clergyman who gets up Howard Wheeler’s nose by pretending to have known his mother much better than he did. But more often than not, particularly in his later writing, Wright references Christianity wistfully, seeing its beauty and the order and steady reassurance it provides to those who can tap into it. I’ve had the privilege to introduce Wright at about a half dozen London readings over the years and to go out with him afterwards for food and drink. (Always a gracious guest, I couldn’t help wondering if Wright’s spirits never sank upon sighting me on yet another London podium: “Oh God, Goodden again. Does nobody else in this blighted burg read me?”) In the wake of his Clara Callan reading, I asked him if any of the media coverage of this book had surprised him. Yes, he told me. About 20, 30 pages in, Clara loses her faith and it’s a pretty big deal in her life, a major shift in her perspective and attitude, and this went utterly unnoted in every review he’d seen of the novel. It shocked him. “No one understood its importance for her,” he said. “They didn’t think it was worth mentioning.”
I opened with a reference to my four and a half decades-long campaign to win readers over to my favourite Canadian writer. I’ve had a fair bit of success with this (particularly with men) but when I’ve failed, the most commonly heard objection to his writing is, “I’m sorry – I just find it too depressing.” There are writers out there I understand to be first-rate but who I avoid for similar reasons, such as John Updike (just his novels; I adore his critical writing) and Philip Roth (whose characters strike me as needlessly ornery and perverse). Obviously, I don’t have that problem with Wright. I know his subject matter is frequently grim but his treatments never strike me as gratuitous and damn it, the subjects he probes and the questions he raises are important. And again and again he delights me with the humour he finds in the most unlikely places and he thrills me with how naturally and perfectly he manages to pin down every detail and nuance of our messy and complicated lives.