I probably read the wrong book by Stuart McLean.
I hadn’t really thought of reading anything by McLean this year, but when he passed away last week I thought I should probably get right on that. While my social networks weren’t exactly filled with massive outpourings of grief about the death like they were when Bowie or Prince died, it was the type of moment that was fairly widely noted. A wider range of my friends seemed to be affected than I would have guessed, and not always the ones I would have pegged as regular CBC listeners.
Since I am committed to disclosure on this blog, I will note that I met Stuart McLean a few years ago. He was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Calgary and I attended that convocation. Afterward, the Faculty of Arts hosted a lunch for our graduates. This was, as far as I know, the first time that the Faculty had done something like this, and, as with most new initiatives around here, attendance could have been better. Fortunately there was a large gaggle of people who had won some sort of CBC contest to attend the lunch, and they were thrilled to be there so it all worked out just fine. I don’t really recall much of what McLean told the graduates, but I do remember thinking it was a better than average convocation address (not a high bar, admittedly). At the reception we chatted briefly and amiably and he seemed to be a very charming fellow indeed.
I never listened to McLean’s show in an informed way. I’m not even sure what day it aired, but I know it was the weekend. I would most frequently hear parts of it in the car while running errands on a weekend afternoon. I don’t think I ever listened to an entire episode. I always thought that what I did hear was mostly pretty good, but it didn’t exactly inspire me to listen to more.
Anyway, I grabbed two McLean books from the library when I read of his death. I first began to read Extreme Vinyl Café but had to stop after a few pages. That book begins, “The first Dave heard of it was back in the fall.” I could not read that sentence without hearing McLean’s distinctive voice and speech pattern. It was unnerving. I tried to forge ahead but abandoned the task by about page three. Uh oh.
So instead I tried The Vinyl Café Notebooks. This was better. No Morley. No Dave. Just a hundred or so short sketches about shoveling the sidewalk, driving on the 401 past Napanee, buying a palm tree. Here, I didn’t much have McLean’s cadence stuck in my ear. That was the good part. The bad part is that this probably isn’t considered one of his better books. McLean was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour four times, and he won it three times. Not for this book, though. This seems to be a book for the hardcores. A two-page piece about losing his to-do list. A remembrance of Peter Gzowski. I understand works that play to the hardcores who want all the minutiae, but that was a lousy place to start. This seemed like the advanced seminar in McLean studies. This book’s not particularly funny, but it’s not trying to be.
I don’t think Stuart McLean and I would have seen eye-to-eye had we known each other better. In one of his essays, “Safe Places”, he talks about how much he didn’t like the No Country for Old Men, the Oscar-winning film by the Coen brothers. I’ve watched that about a dozen times. McLean practiced a form of earnest Canadian niceness that is pretty antithetical to the Coen worldview. It’s probably not one that I share.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: In one chapter, McLean describes reading the original hand-written manuscript of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Apparently, Leacock engaged in very little revision and wrote quickly. I need to get off this Leacock train already.