God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, by Dave Margoshes

by

Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

A few decades back (well, more than three, to be slightly more precise) Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues in the newsroom at the Calgary Herald. I was a political reporter (and not a bad one, if I can toot my own former horn) — his brief was pretty much everything but politics, so our day-to-day reporting paths didn’t often cross.

Our journalistic paths did, if only in what I learned from one of the best news reporters with whom I ever worked. A reporter’s basic job is to collect all the information you can (not just the parts that serve your tilt on the story) — and Dave did that on every assignment. A far more important and difficult task is “selecting” the relevant bits that capture the story — I could do that with politics, but was in awe of the way that Dave could do it with almost any subject he was handed.

And then there was putting it all together for publication — in as few words as possible. In the news business in those days, there were lots of people who could write a “good” story in 2,000 words. A few talented ones could take the same data and produce an even better story in 1,000. Only the best could take all that “stuff” and make 500 words tell the story — I could not do that very often, but Dave sure could. “Rewrite” is a task that has disappeared in modern newsrooms but it was very alive then — and it seemed that every morning, Dave was called on to reduce 2,000 words of someone else’s work to 500 and not lose a thing. The 500 almost always said more than the 2,000 did (okay, he rewrote my work on occasion and, of course, I always felt something had been lost, hence the “almost always”).

I provide that lengthy introduction to say that those reporting/story-telling skills (I’d label them “observation” and “reduction”) are on full display in this new collection of 16 stories. We don’t get a lot of “big” plot events to help the author along here — we have human, humane incidents where observing, selecting and recounting show the writer’s craft. Anyone who has ever tried to write anything, be it a news story or fiction, would be well advised to get a copy and appreciate the result.

Consider as a starter the third story in the collection, “Bucket of Blood”, and the way that it is introduced:

The bar had no proper name but was known as the Bucket of Blood. The day that Archie Duggan dies there, two Wednesdays ago, and the following day, when his death was mentioned in the news, it was the first time that the place, which had stood at the corner of 11th Avenue and Osler Street for over a hundred years, had registered in the minds of most of the people of the city in decades.

The bar was located in the basement of a rundown hotel that had once been called the Earle. The hotel had been built be a man named Louis P. Earle, a flamboyant former railway worker who had washed up in what was then still a town, not yet a city, after the construction of the CPR. In its heyday, the Earle Hotel was a good dignified address at which to spend a night or two, or even longer, though there was always a confusion, among both guests and the residents of the town alike who had not had the occasion to ever meet Louis P. Earle, or hear his name said aloud, as to the pronunciation of the hotel’s name: was it sounded Earl or Early?

The second paragraph in that excerpt extends for almost another page, but I’m thinking that provides flavor enough. We know that Archie Duggan dies, but to understand that story we need more backstory. And, in good journalistic (and fiction) tradition, we get it. The bar has its aging regulars (Archie included) who show up everyday and its share of “other” trade, drug dealers included, but that has dropped off. Danny, the bartender and general manager, is a recovering alcoholic — and has sponsored a number of AA members from his customer base over the years, but Archie wasn’t one of them. Like Danny, Archie is also a recovering alcoholic who only drinks ginger ale — but they never discuss what brought both of them to this bar.

On that day [the day Archie died] — the 17th of August, a Wednesday — Archie came into the bar, smiling to himself over the reassuring creak of the heavy door, at his usual time, more or less fifteen minutes after three in the afternoon. Danny O’Hara, who had a railroad man’s eye for detail, had often wondered about the significance of that time — never 3 p.m., never 3:30, but always 3:15, give or take a minute or two in either direction. Early on in their relationship — hardly friends, but bartender to customer, warmed by their mutual knowledge of the past they shared, the past they had, for different reasons, put well behind them — Danny had glanced at his watch as Archie took his preferred seat at one end of the bar, and Archie commented without elaboration “School’s out.” That was intriguing: was the man a teacher? A parent — or grandparent — of a school-age child? A student himself? From the looks of him, his neat but shabby suit, the Blue Jays ballcap on top a full head of snow white hair, his well-used face and rough hands, Archie was more likely to be a school janitor than any of the other possibilities. But when he died, the small write-up in the paper, the same story that invoked the name and reputation of the Earle Hotel for the first time in the public prints in many years, identified him merely as “a pensioner”, so Danny would never know.

Margoshes is more fiction writer than reporter now, so “Bucket of Blood” does have a twist — I won’t be spoiling the story and we will move on to another one.

“Lightfoot and Goodbody” was another personal favorite in this collection. Bob Klebeck is 77 and his life in a Winnipeg senior citizens’ apartment is too much for him: a pathetic schedule of activites (“the Globe and Peter Gzowski in the morning over two cups of coffee — no more — plus doctors’ appointments, counsellor’s appointments, poker games, chess games visits to the library…”), children who are too busy to care, etc. etc.

So he decides it is time to become a modern-day tramp. First off, he adopts the name Lightfoot (yes, after the folk singer — we Canadians are devoid of imagination). Much as he would like to pack a bindlestiff, he opts for a knapsnack — underwear, socks, two knit shirts, a chunk of cheddar and a half loaf of Winnipeg-style rye, a bottle of water, reading glasses and a 95-cent used copy of The Grapes of Wrath — and decides to head west.

The romantic image, too, called for him to shuffle off into the sunset. Instead, leaving early in the morning, the sun was still at his back as he headed west along the Trans-Canada Highway (a brief bus ride brought him to the edge of town), his thumb stuck out in the most desultory of fashion. The mountains, where he imagined himself laying his head beside a free-flowing stream, beneath rain-fresh resin-smelling pine trees, were many hundreds of miles away — he still steadfastly refused to use the word “kilometre” or any of the other metric vocabulary. They were surely too far to reach in a day’s tramping, maybe two, even with good luck and many rides. Between them lay miles and miles of undulating fields of amber wheat, sky-blue flax, bright-yellow canola — his mouth paused in sour annoyance at the made-up name for the perfectly legitimate rape his grandfather had once planted, some people’s sensitivities be damned; miles of grain, then equal miles of undulating rangeland where, if he was lucky, he might see an antelope in the distance and a hawk observing his progress disdainfully from high above. Many, many miles, far too many for any man to walk, let alone a seventy-seven-year-old man with bad knees, a bad stomach, and a stroke, mild though it was, only two years behind him. Still, what lay ahead, he knew — thought he knew, at any rate — was do-able, weighted down merely be discomfort. And with all this in mind, and a hundred and seventy-seven dollars, in various denominations and combinations of change in his pockets, a VISA card in his wallet, a pair of poorly fitting sunglasses perched on his nose, and a jaunty porkpie hat set on an angle on his almost hairless head, Lightfoot set out.

He gets a couple of typical rides — a Mercedes-Benz salesman delivering a new car to Swift Current, a farmer on his way back to the homestead. And he stops for pie and coffee at the Pilgrim truck stop. And then he gets picked up by Doris Goodbody, a female version of Lightfoot himself, and the story really starts. Two finer people in fiction you cannot meet, I would say.

As much as I appreciate my old friend Dave and those stories, I suspect I have done him no favor by choosing those two to highlight in this review. Most of the 16 in this book have far more substance to them (imagine how long the review would be if I’d tried to describe them?) and the author is very good at applying the distinctive twist that often features in good short stories. And while the two I have highlighted are set in Western Canada, let me assure you that the 16 in this collection go much father afield (and beyond worldly field in the title story).

Whatever. This is a first-rate collection, from an old friend, that I would recommend to anyone. Margoshes last collection (A Book of Great Worth) was a novel-in-stories devoted to his father — this equally stunning collection is a series of observations and ruminations (and quite a few jokes) developed over a modern lifetime. It was a quiet joy to read — you won’t be disappointed.

7 Responses to “God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, by Dave Margoshes”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    Thanks for an intriguing review. As a Canadian who has a complicated emotional relationship with so much Canadian literature which is just not as good as I would hope it to be (and then all that sense of guilt about not reading enough of it), I appreciate your opening doors (books) that I might not have considered. Cheers.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Do check out Margoshes’ work — he has a way of capturing “slices of Canadian life” that certainly strikes a chord with me. There is not pretentiousness to his stories at all and I keep coming across wonderful asides (why did we decide that rapeseed had to be called canola?).

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  2. Pat Preston Says:

    Thank you Kevin for this fantastic review. You have captured the person and the book so well. Knowing Dave and having read most of his work (I have yet to read this new one) You have captured his writing skills and his great editing ability. His talent in both areas stands out in his finely crafted work. I always encourage others to read any of his books, believing they will want to read more. Your review will, I anticipate, find new readers for writing by this exceptional author.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Hi Pat. I certainly hope some people are motivated to explore his extensive work (I think this is book 15 in poetry and fiction). He is published by small independents, so his books tend not to show up on front shelves in bookstores — but they are readily available online and I’d hope I can encourage a few more people to explore his oeuvre.

      And let us share a smile for “editing ability”. In the modern writing world, the “editor” is at risk of becoming an artefact — indeed many self-published authors regard editors as evil gatekeepers. When you read excellent authors’ acknowledgements, they always cite an editor — would that more authors had access to a good one.

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  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    My issue with the self-publishing (sorry, “indie”) boom isn’t the loss of publishers as gatekeepers, it’s the loss of editors. Editors are essential, and if you wander into your local bookstore and take a look say at the novels of Ian Rankin or George RR Martin, you can see as they get more successful the sheer physical bloat set in – where once they wrote 300 pages now they write 600, 700, more.

    Authors become too big to edit, but they at least already have their fans. For new authors I think it’s a much more serious issue.

    Anyway, I digress, sounds good Kevin. Nicely captured.

    Bucket of Blood is a terribly offputting name for a bar by the way, but I suppose only its regulars would know to call it that.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Given that I spent many years as an editor (albeit a newspaper one, not in the book trade), I can only second your comments. It is ironic in the modern, easy-to-get published world that the disappearance of “editing” shows up most dramatically at the extremes — self-published works at one end, and superstars at the other. In both cases, the old ego just keeps getting in the way.

      I know short stories really aren’t your forte, but I think if you could find a Margoshes volume you would take to his work. Given your background, I would point you to A Book of Great Worth (link to my review is in the review above) — one of the themes that shows up in a number of the stories is “growing up in a left-wing community”. It is an American one in the book, but I don’t think you would find it that much different from working class London.

      Also stay tuned — Margoshes has a novel (it will by a first for me, although I have read a number of story collections) scheduled for publication in September and my ARC is due to arrive any day. I am quite looking forward to it.

      The Herald local when Dave and I worked there was across the alley in the Empress Hotel — it was universally known as The Emptiness in the newsroom. I suspect the Bucket of Blood came by that label in a somewhat similar macabre fashion for the regulars — they were the only ones who called it that.

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