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2014/04/13

David McFadden's Great Lakes Suite

by John Bloner, Jr.

Three books that make up The Great Lakes Suite, written by David McFadden and published by Coach House Press
This article began on April 9, 2000 when I posted a review of the Canadian author/poet, David McFadden's collection, "Great Lakes Suite", on the Amazon website. 14 years later, it remains as the only review of this edition at that online location. This fact does not mean that McFadden has toiled in obscurity as a writer over the 50-plus years since his first poem was published in 1958. He most recently won the Griffin Poetry Prize, a significant honor. This prize is the world's largest monetary prize for a 1st edition, single collection of poetry in the English language. McFadden was honored for his book, "What's The Score?"

McFadden had already won my personal Nobel, Pulitzer and Pushcart Prizes many years ago for three slim stories of his van trips around three of the Great Lakes--Erie, Huron and Ontario.  On the first two trips, he was accompanied by his wife, two daughters, and dog, Bruce. On the final one, "A Trip Around Lake Ontario", by a film crew.

I came across McFadden's book, "A Trip Around Lake Erie", when a clerk at the now-defunct Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin told me about it. I had not heard of McFadden prior to that time, but that clerk must have either seen something in my gait, for I've walked McFadden since that day.

David McFadden and his partner, Merlin Homer (photo credit: Stuart Ross)
To walk McFadden means that his writing style resonates with me. If I were a store clerk, I'm not sure where I'd place his books in the shop. On the surface, they're travel books, so a lazy clerk might shelve them in the travel section. McFadden's style leans toward prose poetry, so someone could find these slim volumes in the poetry section. They might wind up under "essays" in a big box bookseller, although the books' Walter Mitty-esque elements might land them in the "humor" section. There's also some philosophizing in their pages; not enough to make your eyes glaze over and just enough to make you feel that you're getting smarter by reading them.

If I were a store clerk, I'd clear some shelves and make my own "McFadden" section. I'd pay it forward from the clerk at Harry W. Schwartz and lead select customers to David McFadden's many books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by sensing something in their eye, their turn of phrase, or their gait that would let me know they'd cherish a trip to this special part of the store.

The late, great independent Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA
 (photo credit: http://milwaukeedailyphoto.com)
Toss/ a dart at the map of Canada/where it lands is/ where you'll find me -- David McFadden, "On The Road Again."

More precisely, toss a dart between the years of 1940 and 1978 onto a map of the Canadian province of Ontario, landing it on the steel-producing City of Hamilton, and you'd find David McFadden.

McFadden describes his hometown in the opening chapter to "A Trip Around Lake Erie":

"Hamilton, Ontario--on the road map a little blob of yellow at the western tip of Lake Ontario. It's a dirty, dreary, burnt-out industrial city, a place covered by a perpetual black cloud, and it's not a great place to live."

Hamilton, Ontario (photo credit: www.steeltownkids.com)
While it's often clear when McFadden is putting one on the reader, it's more fun to read each chapter as if he's telling it straight.

For example, in his second book of this series, "A Trip Around Lake Huron", McFadden describes a stop at Mackinac Island State Park. First, he describes the sailboats on the water, the beautiful day with its puffy clouds and autos streaming over the Mackinac Bridge, and comments on the Great Lakes system.

"We were located precisely at the centre of gravity of the entire Great Lakes system, the point of balance. We were at the centre of the watery universe. Any water anywhere in the entire universe had at one time passed through these straits and was akin to the water that was now passing through these straits, and into Lake Huron . . ." (from "A Trip Around Lake Huron" by David McFadden.)

Unless you've read other work by this author, you're not prepared for what is to follow.

A view of Mackinac Bridge from Straits State Park.  (Photo credit: pioneer-spirit.blogspot.com)
In the next paragraph, McFadden turns his lens from wide-angle ("We were at the centre of the watery universe") to closeup, as some figures (literally) capture his attention.

"There were dozens of pretty girls in bikinis lying on the beach. Above them fat gulls were soaring, content with not being human. Suddenly, the girls were naked, lying there without even their bikinis and the gulls were flying up there wearing little swimsuits and with lipstick on their beaks."

What is going on in McFadden's three books has been going on in his other work for many years.

McFadden is a poet, essayist, writer of fiction and nonfiction, but, above all, he is a trickster, as found in Native American storytelling. Author Barbara Babcock-Abrahams writes of this character, "His creative cleverness amazes us and keeps alive the possibility of transcending the social restrictions we regularly encounter."

(photo credit: www.strangedaysindeednews.blogspot.com)
In a short video that celebrates McFadden upon his receipt of the Griffin Poetry Prize, a narrator says of him, "While reading his beautiful, clear language, you sense that he is a trickster, but you cannot help believe in every stanza he writes."

He is able to mix the cosmic with comedy. He leavens longing with laughter.


(graphic by John Boyle)
Since he wrote the "A Trip Around ...." stories, McFadden has taken readers on tours of other countries in his books on Ireland, Scotland, Newfoundland and Cuba.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, he received a festschrift with words from friends and family. In his blog, Serif of Nottingblog, Gary Barwin of McFadden's hometown of Hamilton, writes, "They should name a certain kind of bemused happy/sad wonder after him. A quirky curiosity."

Maybe it's because many of my favorite writers, musicians and comedians come from Canada, but I'd long felt that many Canadians must enjoy their turn on this road of life a bit more than the sad rest of us. Only a Canadian would  think of naming their one dollar coin, a "Loonie," their two-dollar coin, a "Toonie," and their ATM machine, a "Johnny Cash."

David McFadden's world through his writings compounds my belief. In the early 1990s, I didn't take my family on a trip around Lake Ontario, but I did drive them over 500 miles to the city of Hamilton to see if was the dirty, dreary wonder as McFadden had described it. I didn't find the author there--he had long ago moved to Toronto--but I did discover a used bookstore, where the shop owner with cataracts was selling cartons of loneliness at half-price, a cheap 1970's vintage radio on a back counter was playing "Stranger Song" by Leonard Cohen, and on a high shelf, selling for four bucks Canadian, was McFadden's well-worn novel, "Canadian Sunset," signed by the man himself.

1986 novel by David McFadden (Photo of author by Toronto Transit Commission)

To learn more about this author, read George Bowering's fabulous essay, "Proofing The World: The Poems of David McFadden," pick up a copy of his "A Trip Around..." books, or take the kids on a car trip around Superior or Lake Michigan and put it all down in a story, so I can write about you some day.

(Artwork by Jennifer Thermes)

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