The Gentle Wit of Stuart McLean
Feature by John Last
Authors add a dimension to their work when they create a microcosm in which their stories are set. Think 221B Baker Street. My contemporary favourites include the astonishingly prolific Alexander McCall Smith who created a Botswana world, and several worlds located in Edinburgh neighbourhoods.
Another favourite is nearer. In a Toronto neighbourhood, Stuart McLean created the world of Dave and Morley, their two children Stephanie and Sam, Arthur the dog and Galway the cat, sundry neighbours, most notably Dave’s nemesis Mary Turlington. Dave owns a record store, the Vinyl Café. This, and nearby shops and their proprietors figure in some of the stories: Kenny Wong’s Scottish Meat Pies, Dorothy’s Woodsworth book shop, and others.
Dave and Morley met on a skating rink in Providence, Rhode Island: Dave collided with her and drove her to hospital to have her chin stitched. Dave had been a roadie with roving rock and roll bands, and Morley was a flower child working in theatres. It was the generation of bell-bottomed trousers, wire framed glasses and innocent rootlessness. They courted in a desultory way for a few years, then married, settled in Toronto and Dave made an inconspicuously good living, serendipitously buying rare vinyl records along with many others of no value, selling the valuable rarities at considerable profit. It’s a plausible way to make a good living. All this and much more is skillfully disclosed in rambling digressions from the story that’s the main fare that week.
Thanks to CBC Radio, Canada’s benevolent patron of the arts, the Vinyl Café stories have been broadcast for more than 20 years. Dave and Morley’s family has evolved. Stephanie and Sam have moved through childhood. Stephanie has graduated from university and is living with her boyfriend Tommy Nowlen; Tommy’s parents are theoretical physicists, an unworldly couple who can’t cook a Christmas Turkey. Dave, on the other hand, has had long and rich experience of cooking Christmas Turkeys, dating from his unforgettable experience, related in what may be the best known, most beloved Vinyl Cafe story. Sam is near the end of high school, developing a serious interest in food and gourmet cooking. Arthur the dog has died, leaving the family bereft as only the death of a beloved dog can. Dave’s mother Margaret, widowed in Big Narrows, Cape Breton, has remarried.
Things happen to Dave, Schadenfreude sort of things that audiences at live Vinyl Café performances find hilarious, often precipitated by Dave’s unique combination of adventurous experimentation, and all-thumbs clumsiness. He never met a mechanical device he didn’t feel impelled to try out, invariably with unfortunate consequences. His shoelace gets tangled in an exercise treadmill that’s been programmed for an athlete much fitter than he is, and he finds himself frantically jogging backwards to remain upright. In a supermarket, he takes a motorized trolley intended for physically impaired shoppers for a test drive and loses control. His arm gets caught in one of those automatic blood pressure machines they have in drug stores. Not all of Dave’s misadventures stimulate the Schadenfreude nerve. On a senior citizens’ cruise that Dave and Morley mistakenly find themselves aboard, Dave encounters a retired dentist who has discovered his retirement income goes further on cruise ships than in a retirement community. Dave organizes wheelchair races and bungey jumping to reawaken this elderly dentist’s youthful enthusiasm for life.
Dave has other experiences that reveal Stuart McLean’s serious purpose, his aim to make Canada an even better place. A Pakistani immigrant family with a small daughter provides opportunities to demonstrate the importance and many benefits of racial tolerance. A most moving story called “Remembrance” begins with a faded photo of a 1914-1918 Great War soldier that hangs on the wall inside the front door of Dave and Morley’s home. How this photo came into Dave’s possession, and who the soldier was make one of the best anti-war stories I’ve ever read. I defy the most stony-hearted cynic to listen to or read this story without feeling strong emotions. Yet it is all low-key, sketched with skill and deft command of language. Stuart McLean isn’t just a story-teller. He is an excellent literary craftsman. He can delineate characters in a few perfectly chosen phrases, describe a scene—funny or sad—in a few well-crafted sentences. He is a worthy recipient of the Stephen Leacock Award for humorous writing and a meritorious Officer of the Order of Canada. When I’m counting distinguished Canadian women and men of letters, his name is near the top of my personal list of those who will be remembered and read a hundred years from now.
Before he created Dave and Morley and the Vinyl Café, Stuart McLean was a journalist and writer with the CBC Radio program Morningside. In that role, he traveled across Canada and among other things, wrote some excellent essays about life in small town Canada. He continues this with frequent delightful accounts of life and living in small towns all across this great nation, places visited when the Vinyl Café takes to the road, affectionate and accurate portraits in words of places like Nelson, BC, Port Hope, Ontario, Swift Current, Saskatchewan. When I want to explain Canada to my relations and friends in Australia and New Zealand, I refer them to Stuart McLean’s books. Sometimes if I’m feeling unusually generous or affectionate, I might wrap a gently used copy of one of the volumes of Vinyl Café stories scattered about my living-room, and send it across the Pacific to a new Antipodean home where my nieces and nephews can discover a little of what Canada is like.