Archive for the ‘Margoshes, Dave (3)’ Category

God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, by Dave Margoshes

July 27, 2014

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.


Guest Post: Author Dave Margoshes on A Book of Great Worth

April 23, 2012

Dave Margoshes

This guest post uses material published in the “Afterword” in A Book of Great Worth, which itself borrows from a brief essay Dave Margoshes wrote for the literary magazine The New Quarterly to accompany three of the stories it published a few years ago.

I’ve been working on a series of stories about the character I call “my father” – loosely based on my own father – for about 30 years. Over that time, many of them have been in magazines and several in previous short story collections. I had no intention of doing a series, but I liked that first story – it was “The False Moustache” – a lot and wondered if I could use the character in other situations. The story had begun with a spark of truth – a story my father had told many times about a foolish man he’d once known – and the spirit of my father, who had died a couple of years earlier. I had a number of such yarns from my father rattling around in my head and I soon wrote several more of my own “versions.” Gradually, over many years, I began to think I might have enough of these tales to eventually fill a book.

All of the stories begin, first of all, with the character of Morgenstern, “my father,” who is very much imbued with the persona and personality of my own father, and with a seed of truth. There really was a strike at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where my father wrote for years, and he went to work in a silversmith shop, the situation that informs the story called “The Barking Dog.” And he really did work briefly as a tutor/farmhand, the hook that gets “The Farm Hand” going. As for the story “The Family Circle,” there really was a Margoshes family circle, spearheaded by my mother, but beyond that, all three stories are fiction, as are all in the series, though some are more “fictional” than others.

As I continued to return to these stories, in between other writing projects, a few constants began to become clear to me. The most important was that, while the tone of the stories varies considerably, from somber to comic, they’re similar thematically in that they all show different glimpses of a fundamentally decent man in morally perplexing situations.

All the stories in the series walk that precarious tightrope between memoir and fiction. Of course, they’re not true memoir – they’re about my father, not me, though sometimes I appear briefly, as a child, listening to my father’s tale. Sometimes I (the author) have myself (the character) ask a question or in some other way provide a foil for the character of my father. Mostly, though, the focus is on “my father,” often in time periods before my birth. The stories are written in a blend of first and third person – when the character of myself as a child is on stage, it’s first person; but when the focus is on “my father” alone, it’s third. This bumping together of forms and techniques inevitably raises a question or two in the minds of some readers: is this truth or fiction, and how does the narrator know these things?

I worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir – like truth – but, of course, most serious fiction writers do that all the time – we employ technique to garb our fabrications in an illusion of truth. We want the reader to buy into our fictions. I also worked hard to imbue these stories with a tension created by that unstated question of how the narrator came to know not just the stories, in their broad strokes, but the fine details. That is the question, isn’t it?

Most importantly, I tried to honour my father. The best way to do that, I knew, was to get it right.

A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes

April 22, 2012

Review copy courtesy Coteau Books

Full Disclosure: Back in the 1970s, Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues for a few years in the newsroom of the Calgary Herald. He moved on, continuing what he now describes as a career as an itinerant journalist; I stayed and eventually was named publisher of the newspaper. Since that crossing of paths, he has published 12 books (stories, novels, poetry). I left the newspaper business 16 years ago and now blog about books; we re-established contact a few months ago when he left a comment here. I am chagrined to admit that I have not read any of his previous books; I am delighted to be able to comment on this one.

A Book of Great Worth is a collection of thirteen short literary pieces that, in the interest of descriptive categorization, would be called short stories. I don’t quarrel with that, but I’d like to have a more precise option that doesn’t fit conventional literary file folders: a celebration of fatherhood, written by a son, mainly about his own father, but, since he takes some liberties, this is fiction, not memoir. If that makes even confusing sense, you can understand why there isn’t really a concise description that fits.

In an afterword to this volume, Margoshes offers an italicized version of advice given by his mother: Listen to your father. Whatever label you choose to apply to these efforts, written over the last 30 years and originally published in a wide variety of sources, they are a response to that advice. The following quote from Margoshes’ afterword betrays conventional practice about proper reviews, but I’ll break those rules because it aptly summarizes the collection in a way that I found apparent from the start:

All of the stories begin, first of all, with the character of Morgenstern, “my father”, who is very much imbued with the persona and personality of my own father, and with a seed of truth. There really was a strike at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where my father wrote for years, and he went to work in a silversmith shop, the situation that informs “The Barking Dog”. And he really did work briefly as a tutor/farmhand, the hook that gets “The Farmhand” going. As for “The Family Circle”, there really was a Margoshes family circle, spearheaded by my mother, but beyond that, all three stories are fiction, as are all in the series, though some are more “fictional” than others.

Okay, I’ve just cheated and let the author describe his approach to three of the stories (and an overview of all the rest). I’ll concentrate on describing two more and let you make your own decision on whether this intriguing collection fits your tastes.

Dave Margoshes was (is?) a journalist; as was his father; as was his grandfather; as was KfC. So for starters, let’s consider Harry Morgenstern as he appears in “The Wisdom of Solomon”. Margoshes arranges his stories in a rough chronological order, so we already know that his father comes from “journalist” stock, has farming experience in the Catskills and further west and has arrived in Cleveland where his family journalistic experience is not known and he has a chance to establish a name for himself.

It was 1920, and my father was twenty-seven; as he liked to say, he was always a few years older than the century.

The Cleveland Jewish World — Der Velt — had a grand title but the paper itself was somewhat less than grand. Its circulation was barely fifty thousand, just a fraction of that of the big Yiddish dailies of New York City, but it saw itself playing a role just as important in the lives of the Jews of Cleveland and other cities in Ohio, bringing them not just news, but education, entertainment and literature. It was that part that most interested my father, who had been writing a novel and poems, but he was assigned more mundane tasks at first, not the least of which were obituaries.

For those of us who used to be journalists, that paragraph and its reminders — New York at that time was supporting a host of Yiddish newspapers; now it struggles to profitably support an English one — brings back fond memories. One of the beauties of this story (and many of the rest) is the way that Margoshes introduces a dream and then explodes it with a healthy dose of reality. Father Harry, eager to escape obit writing (the graveyard of all young journalists :-)), is asked to write the agony-aunt lovelorn column:

The newspapers of New York were filled with such columns, which were wildly popular. Abe Cahan, the great editor at The Forward, the Socialist paper, had invented the form, which he called the Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bunch of letters, but all the other Yiddish papers had followed, even the religious papers, which at first considered themselves too serious for such a seemingly trivial feature. But readers demanded it. Regardless of what paper they read, they had questions, often much the same ones. Even the English papers, like the Sun and the Telegram in New York, seeing all the fuss were quick to follow.

Sigh. For those of us who are disturbed that agony aunts, uncles and drivel columnists are taking over the modern web sites of conventional newspapers, it is useful to be reminded that the threat is more than a half-century old. Needless to say, Harrry is good at his agony column (he sets a very high standard with the phoney letter he uses to launch the column) and eventually moves to New York and a more serious post as labor reporter, during the Depression and war years, at The Day.

Margoshes himself is a fine reporter with an eye and ear for history; in many of these stories he uses that talent not just to portray his father but to capture the atmosphere of the times and New York City. I commend the value of those but will move on to the title story, “A Book of Great Worth”, for my concluding thoughts.

The story opens with the crash of the Hindenberg — Harry Morgenstern was there as a reporter and injured in the resulting melee. By that time the author’s parents (his own arrival was still four years off) had a third-floor apartment on Coney Island. In the aftermath of the Hindenberg crash, Harry runs into a young woman from Montreal (“a damsel in distress. Just the ticket, you are,” the local bartender observes) and takes her home to provide shelter, both physical and emotional. Anna, who does not talk but writes notes, is searching for her “brother” although Harry’s mother is quite certain that “lover” would be a more accurate description.

The author’s father has only one material interest: books, books that he purchases at Fushgo’s second-hand store. And Fushgo has just presented him with a handwritten volume (“in the manner of monks”):

The handwriting was skillful and consistent throughout the several hundred pages, the unintelligible words clearly scripted in a faded blue ink, the enlarged capitals at the beginning of each new paragraph shadowed in a red the shade of dried blood. There was no date, no publisher’s name or city, no illustrations that might serve as clues to the book’s origin, and the title and author were just as indecipherable as the text itself. The leather of the binding was so thick — more like a slab of oxblood hide used for making shoes than the soft black grainy cloth publishers used — and the spine so warped the book could not be fully closed, and when it lay on the table it seemed like a head whose jaws had sprung open, eager to share the untapped wisdom within it. “For you, Morgenstern,” Fushgo had said when he produced the book for my father. “Read this and you’ll learn much the same wisdom you acquire conversing with your Anna.”

I offer that quote as an example that there is more to this intriguing collection than first meets the eye. Yes, more than anything else, this is an homage to the author’s father, one that it took him many decades to compile. But it is also a collection of some very perceptive observations about the world where his father lived — the Yiddish newspapers, East-side New York, the pull of both the West and the East, life in the streets and a life devoted to books.

Margoshes wrote these pieces over a span of decades and, if you try to read them all at once, you might find some repetitive parts distracting, because they do exist. Spread out over time, however, (I took six weeks to complete the book) the repetitions serve as handy reminders.

Dave Margoshes and I are contemporaries, although my father was a couple decades younger than his. And my father’s “fame” hardly rivals his — my dad went through three World War II boot camps and eventually ended up as a credit manager for a Western Canadian small town lumber yard chain. Yet, I remember well all that he introduced me to and to this day appreciate his concern in what I had the potential to become. A Book of Great Worth may be Margoshes’ homage to his father, but it is worth noting that almost all of these stories involve events that take place before the author himself was born, recounted to the son as personal oral history. In the final analysis, the collection is about what produced the man who did influence him — we all have fathers and they all share that characteristic. Few of us take the time to chronicle those family memories — that in itself is enough to say that this book is a valuable and unusual work, one that sparks its own reminders for the reader.

A final note: Come back tomorrow for a guest post from the author which will offer some further insights into this collection.

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