Thursday, November 30, 2017

The inimitable voice of Bill Richardson makes me smile

Published 1995, Douglas and MacIntyre in Vancouver.

Twenty-two years ago was a different era. I suspect that in today's dog-eat-dog publishing world, the discursive style and lush prose of Bill Richardson would get short shrift.

This is not a book to be read for the plot, even though a lot happens to twins Vergil and Hector, their friends and pets, in the course of life running the Bed and Breakfast.

Those of us who remember Bill Richardson on CBC read to hear his voice in our heads. Zany asides, excursions into philosophy and a vast array of vocabulary. Who uses words like lofty, charitable, tawdry, mote and monstrance? Vergil keeps a journal, dreams in puns and admits to penning lines "to release some pent-up punning energy."

In describing a contest for "improving verse" (read bad doggerel), the author's poetic flights soar through alliterations: "simpering sestinas," "vilifying villanelles" and "scolding sonnets adjuring dog owners to pick up after their pets." (Adjuring: a delectable word). Speaking of dogs, brother Hector has resigned himself "to being an old dog, hopelessly estranged from new tricks."

As well as dogs, there are ghosts: On a visit home to his parents, Vergil sees "protoplasmic shreds of who and what went before." These include his dead brother, his grandmother's face rising out of the kettle steam, and his younger selves, now "wrestling with the angel of French irregular verbs," and  again standing at the fridge munching on his mother's home made bread and butter pickles (which she makes no longer, as "life is too short and the supermarket too close to bother.")

The ghost of young Vergil also paces along Portage Avenue past the former location of the Mardi Gras. Both attractive and repellent, this was "where the fruits used to go." The gay bar he never dared to enter puts Vergil in mind of how he girded his loins for years to break the news of his homosexuality to his parents, then found their easy acceptance strangely "unsettling." Now far in the past, these memories also recall how his mother wants to leave him a family heirloom. That selfsame Blue Mikado china reminds him of mortality, generating further flights of poetry.

Caedmon, the man of all work at the bed and breakfast, makes his own forays into poesy, opening his paean to dust with this evocation: "Chaff, born on the wind from Samarkand." The very pregnant June is inspired to metaphor by the state of her body as childbirth looms: she feels she "couldn't get through a revolving door with a crowbar." Even Hector's girl friend, the cosmetically expert Altona, gives a mean description of what Hector looks like when he's asleep.

Vergil is fond of kids and likes baby books. In his free time, he does a bit of babysitting, reading to the children of exhausted guests. His annotated booklist for the wee ones contains several of my own favourites. A.A. Milne, of course, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moonbut also the more arcane The Elephant and the Bad [and manipulative!] Baby.

This is a book revealing daily moments, from sublimely transcendent to sad and ridiculous. Virgil is surprised by joy as the sun "sheds its golden fleece." Hector finally masters the hula hoop, only to watch in horror as it is accidentally chewed up by the lawnmower. Caedmon's youthful "Blakean vision" teaches him that "Mistakes are just not possible, for every seeming blunder is just another step along the scenic and circuitous wherever it is you're going."

There's zany fun aplenty. Magazines are called Pry, The Rumour and Interference, and characters have names like Abel Wackaugh. Poetic couplets include this: "Burping is a way to drain, Evil humours from the brain." In counterpoint, the parrot Mrs. Rochester accentuates or criticizes the prevailing mood by quoting a suitable verse from the King James Bible. Mr. Bellwether's church of "God the Technician and Marketer" speaks for itself.

Caedmon finds a dishwasher on the side of the road, brings it home on a red wagon, then restores and installs it. Running, it sings as the mood strikes it, "No more, no more, be still, restore" or "Har-de har, from afar." This reminded me of my mother's old wringer washer, which used to repeat hypnotically, "Colin Roy, Colin Roy." [We were reading Kidnapped at the time.]

On the spying front, as the writer of messages in invisible ink says, "There's nothing like the bald truth to dispel suspicion. No one ever believes it."

In closing, let me quote Professor Bardal: "When the hubris of the powerful and living meets the malice of the cunning and dead, what chance to the rest of us have?" What chance indeed?

Yes, there are plenty of good reasons why this book won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

Footnote: From this book, I learned a notable fact: Evian spelled backwards spells naive.

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