Tom Wolfe at the Door

I have always been a fan of Tom Wolfe, ever since his first book came out in 1965 with the modest title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. I have followed his work through the years with admiration , as he combined his Yale Ph.D. analytical intelligence with his journalist’s love of getting deep into sweaty crowds, and his shameless . . . Heeeewack! . . . love of dramatic utterances on the page.

It deserved the title, “The New Journalism,” and he was the ultimate master of the form.

I was delighted when after The Right Stuff, in 1979,  he turned his hand to fiction, and was not surprised when his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a spectacular success, selling 800,000 copies in hardcover and being hailed (to the rage of the Updike, Mailer, and Irving old guard) as the great American novel of the decade.

When a not very successful movie was made of his fine book, Wolfe was asked, anxiously, how he felt about the movie. His reply was perfect: “I cashed the cheque.”

And of course, he has made a success of his novels since then, turning his laser-like attention to different groups in a variety of American cities. His latest book, set in Florida, is entitled Back to Blood. An unusual title, and it rang faint bells. I went back to my edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities, and started to read the opening scene. The Jewish Mayor of New York is up in Harlem at a public meeting, and is getting a very rough ride from the hostile crowd. As the volume of racial hostility swells, he thinks about how basic all this is:

“Oh, she’s afraid like all the rest! She knows she should stand up against this element! They’ll go after black people like her next! They’ll be happy to do it! She knows that. But the good people are intimidated! They don’t dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us!”

Fascinating. That phrase occurs on page 6 of a 659-page novel published  in 1987. In 2012 the phrase Tom Wolfe invented re-appears as the title of his new book. Has he been waiting all those years to use it again, this time as a title?

How authors arrive at titles is often surprising and revealing. Not many people know, for example, that although Two Solitudes seems to be such a perfect title for Hugh Maclennan’s 1945 novel, he only came across it (in a book review!) when the novel was two-thirds written. Surely there must be room for a worthy Ph.D. thesis here . . . did Scott Fitzgerald try the phone book, aware that The Great Smith didn’t really work? Did Morley Callaghan comb through the Bible, rejecting And His Ox and His Ass in favour of More Joy in Heaven? And did some authors fixate on a perfect title, then invent a book to go with it?

Start your engines.

A final Tom Wolfe note. When I was a boy editor, around 1970, my company, Doubleday Canada, distributed Tom Wolfe’s books. So when he came to Toronto to give a speech promoting one of his new books (it may have been Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers) I joined the carload taking him up to York University. In those days York was perched away on the edge of Toronto, more part of the flat hinterlands than of the (now-encroaching) city. As I explained the history of the young university to our visitor, he gazed around at all of the widely spread new buildings. He thought hard, then said: “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”

My York University friends, including my daughter-in-law Lauren, who teaches there, are restrained in their enthusiasm for this comment.


Canada reads Hugh MacLennan

CBC’s annual Battle of the Books Canada Reads announced their 2013 selections and panelists today at a reception in the broadcaster’s atrium. The books and champions are

  • February by Lisa Moore, championed by comedian Trent McClellan
  • Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, championed by Olympic wrestler Carol Huynh
  • Away by Jane Urquhart,  championed by author Charlotte Gray
  • Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, championed by actor Jay Baruchel
  • The Age of Hope by David Bergen, championed by broadcaster Ron MacLean

Since Hugh isn’t around anymore to represent his book as author, CBC has asked Doug to stand-in for Hugh and lend his special insight into Hugh’s work and Two Solitudes. Follow along at CBC Books!

Hugh MacLennan and the Women’s Soccer Bronze Medal

On Saturday, August 11, I performed my show at the annual Couchiching Conference. Jane and I met there 11 years ago when I was a visiting speaker (pronouncing great truths on globalization and publishing, I recall) and Jane was a hospitable member of the board, tasked with making visiting speakers feel welcome. We were married within the year.

The conference theme this year was The Arab Spring, and the implications for Canada. My Stories About Storytellers show was labelled as “And Now For Something Completely Different,” which was very accurate billing. But much of the Conference had dealt with the worrying situation facing the minority groups in many nations in the Arab world, and Hugh MacLennan provided an interesting link there.

I recalled for the audience that it was Hugh who made the point that Canada was formed from “defeated peoples.” Hugh listed The Loyalists, driven north after losing the American War of Independence, the French-Canadians after 1759, the waves of Highland Scots ejected after The Clearances, the Potato Famine Irish. Thereafter there were waves of defeated people from Europe, followed by more recent examples like Vietnamese Boat People, Ugandan Asians, victims of the Yugoslavian troubles, Tamil refugees, and on and on, not to mention our invaded aboriginal people.

I went on to suggest that if you were trying to create a society that was concerned about minorities, not just the triumphant majority, you couldn’t devise a more promising background than Canada’s.

As a punch line, to show how long-lasting this cultural heritage of support for gallant losers really is, I asked what other nation would be so proud of an Olympic bronze medal? Think about it. It was no accident that Christine Sinclair was selected as our flag-bearer. That bronze medal was the great event of the Olympics for most Canadians.

Hugh MacLennan would have been very pleased.

Cambodia Is Close to Canada (and not just in U.N. seating)

Almost three weeks in Cambodia brought some unexpected links with Canada. We were visiting my daughter Katie, who has turned her back on a high-flying legal career in Toronto (she was a clerk at both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Ottawa) to do good work among struggling NGO’s in Phnom Penh. Katie took us around the country, including an evening performance of a circus in Battambang that helps to give street kids a profession.

Fresh from my being mistaken as the starter at the Deer Creek Golf Club, I was standing around in my Tilley hat while the milling crowds waited to be told to head for the big top . At this point a French gentleman approached me, the authority figure, to ask loudly if I was in charge. I’m afraid that I missed the opportunity to take charge of a circus, with jugglers, acrobats and tightrope walkers . . . surely the perfect career for a retired publisher.

Later, down in the southwest corner of Cambodia, in a forested natural area with road signs warning of elephants, a more direct Canadian link appeared. We were visiting the Four Rivers Hotel , which consists of private tents set on top of floating docks on a tidal river 15 kilometres in from the Gulf of Thailand. The manager, Francois Lamontagne, revealed himself as a man from Lennoxville!

Excited conversations about Sherbrooke and North Hatley ensued. Yes, he knew Hugh MacLennan! From a later career in film in Montreal he knew my friends who worked on the Trudeau documentary, and he had great tales of Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin, another Eastern Townships man. How on earth did Francois end up running a lodge on a warm Cambodian river, where we could swim to an island where fruit grew wild on every tree? Ah, he told us, it was a long story.

When we were half an hour from departing on the boat (an African Queen lookalike, minus Humphrey Bogart) I strolled into the little library, where previous visitors had bequeathed worthy books to later guests. There, to my delight, among a smorgasbord of books in various languages, I found Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro, with its dedication to her Port Hope son-in-law. To hold Alice’s book — even if it was the U.K. edition – while the sound of the jungle clicked and whirred around us, was almost too much happiness.

An excerpt on Hugh MacLennan on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

Enjoy another selection of Stories About Storytellers at the Canadian Encyclopedia blog. In this excerpt you’ll find nose biting, Einstein, and bootleggers, all thanks to Hugh MacLennan. To read the excerpt, head over to theCanadian Encyclopedia.

(Have you missed the previous excerpts? You can still read the selections on Peter C. Newman, Robert Hunter, Charles Ritchie, Val Ross, Jack Hodgins, Peter Gzowski, R.D. Symons, James Houston, Morley CallaghanPaul Martin, Barry Broadfoot, Brian Mulroney, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre TrudeauStephen Leacock and Alice Munro.)

Stories About Storytellers on stage: Jack Hodgins

Thanks to Candida Paltiel at Mining Stories Productions and her team, we’ll be featuring weekly snippets of Doug’s one-man stage show. In this week’s clip, Doug talks about Jack Hodgins.

For upcoming performances of Stories About Storytellers the show, head to the events page. For more on Jack Hodgins, see chapter 9 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers on stage: Barry Broadfoot

Thanks to Candida Paltiel at Mining Stories Productions and her team, we’ll be featuring weekly snippets of Doug’s one-man stage show. In this week’s clip, Doug talks about Barry Broadfoot.

For upcoming performances of Stories About Storytellers the show, head to the events page. For more on Barry Broadfoot, see chapter 5 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers on stage: Hugh MacLennan

Thanks to Candida Paltiel at Mining Stories Productions and her team, we’ll be featuring weekly snippets of Doug’s one-man stage show. In this week’s clip, Doug talks about Hugh MacLennan.

For upcoming performances of Stories About Storytellers the show, head to the events page. For more on Hugh MacLennan, see chapter 2 of Stories About Storytellers.

Editing Tips from Douglas Gibson (#7)

Every two weeks we’re sharing tips for editors from the desk of Douglas Gibson. Good for those starting out or old hands who need a reminder, these reminders form an engaging guide for sharp-eyed wordsmiths.

Tip #7

From the chapter on Hugh MacLennan: “I should note that the rule is unvarying; the less experienced writers are the most defensive in the editorial process, insisting that not a hair of their baby’s head, not a comma, be touched.”

Missed the previous tips? Check out Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3Tip #4, Tip #5, and Tip #6.