A Trip Around Lake Ontario
Toronto: Coach House Press, 1988.
Review by Stephen Morrissey
Matrix, # 29, fall 1989
It is easy to miss the important questions that David McFadden raises in A Trip around Lake Ontario. McFadden's sell-deprecating humour, anecdotes, and the many unusual coincidences that help make up the narrative in this latest book hide the deeper intent of his writing. However, as we join McFadden on his week-long car drive around Lake Ontario, in which he is followed by a three man film crew who are also characters in the book, we get a sense of how McFadden pictures Canadians, our way of life, and what McFadden calls "the purposelessness" of existence. All of McFadden's perceptions are coloured by his "major commitment to purposelessness." He writes of small Canadian towns, of people engaged in meaningless or trivial activities, and the cultural impoverishment of many Canadians.
McFadden's trip, like any quest, provides an oppor-tunity to meet people, discuss life, and to understand himself better. Where McFadden travels doesn't really matter; the point of the trip is the exploration of the self. The trip, then, is a metaphor for the journey inward. I don't want to put readers off this book by making it seem to be some kind of spiritual quest, although 1 suspect that this how McFadden might view it. A Trip around Lake Ontario is a very funny as well as entertain-ing book. The humour comes from McFadden's idiosyn-cratic way of seeing things; he is the innocent hero who observes but doesn't get too involved. He lets his characters, apparently people he actually meets, speak for themselves. I suppose McFadden's writing is a part of the documentary tradition in Canadian literature, with the added dimension of his exaggeration of certain scenes, or downright fantasy written up as "reality." A motel sexual encounter with identical twin stewardesses is an example of the latter. It's quite a tall tale!
McFadden isn't exactly Jean-Paul Sartre, but the meaning of existence is one of his major themes, although an understated one. What do Canadians do in the evenings? Where do we disappear to? In Port Hope, McFadden gives this observation:
...they were all inside their softly illuminated and recently renovated and sandblasted nineteenth-century homes, sipping dry autumn sherry in front of the television set and trying to pretend everything was all right in their lives, reminding themselves the emptiness of their lives was the norm, bargaining for contentment.
Where, then, does McFadden find meaning in exis-tence? There is a genuine love and respect for working class people in this book; this suggests something of McFadden's own class origin and perhaps expresses his regret that he has cut himself off from the working class. McFadden seems to have adopted a liberal middle class view of the working class as being closer to reality. He also finds meaning in what he terms "seemingly random events" or "S.R.E.s" that lie experiences regularly. Throughout A Trip around Lake Ontario McFadden almost obsessively records S.R.E.s. He recounts the story of entering a bar in Toronto and being given a copy of one of his early books of poetry:
Turned out someone, not a regular, someone they'd never seen before and carrying a large bag of books had been sitting at the far end of the bar and left just before I arrived. They decided this book had fallen from his bag, out of all the books he had in there it had to be a book authored by a guy who, twenty years later, was about to come in for a drink.
No wonder people call McFadden "Mr. Synchronicity." Part of the fun of reading A Trip around Lake Ontario is figuring out who the writers are that McFadden either meets or discusses. There is a lengthy episode recording McFadden's visit with Chesley Yarn, who is certainly modelled on Al Purdy. Yarn is described as being "dressed in a clean white polyester dress shirt, sleeve-less, the top three buttons undone, and a pair of bell-bottom trousers with extra wide cuffs." Smudge Butter-nut, based on Milton Acorn, is fondly remembered. Perhaps Waldo Cove is Montreal's own Artie Gold, who "used to be a brilliant poet;" this episode should make any sympathetic reader pause and remember Gold's great poetic talent.
McFadden, who used to be a newspaper reporter, appears in this book as the Peter Gzowski of Canadian literature. While Gzowski brings many "average" Canadians to the public's attention on his popular CBC "Morningside" radio programme, McFadden draws from equally average and unassuming people interesting details of their lives. McFadden sees himself as a reporter-at-large, and his mission is to find purpose and meaning where otherwise there is only purposelessness. It is McFadden's accomplishment to be able to do all of this in a seeming effortless way. A Trip around Lake Ontario is, in essence, a trip into the Canadian psyche; fortunately, McFadden can make even a serious endeavour such as this entertaining and fun to read.
Copyright © 2007 The author