Barry Callaghan holds a position in the Canadian literary firmament that is at once praiseworthy and unenviable. Callaghan wrested himself from the shadow of his father, CanLit icon Morley Callaghan, to create a varied career as poet, fiction writer, anthologist, editor, essayist, journalist, filmmaker, and professor. He has been referred to, in this magazine, as “one of Canada’s pre-eminent persons of letters,” on a level with Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler.
He is also, unfortunately, more written about than read, more discussed than digested. Two new publications will – hopefully – redress that balance, and place Callaghan where he rightfully belongs.
All the Lonely People collects Callaghan’s short fiction. This isn’t a “complete works,” but at almost 500 pages it is a rich and enthralling overview. Callaghan writes with a powerful verve, a seeming abandon and heedlessness which upon closer examination reveals itself to be the result of careful, subtle, and unobtrusive skill and care. Stories like “Because Y Is a Crooked Letter” seem to ramble unchecked before snapping, in their closing lines, into sharp, breathtaking relief.
Callaghan doesn’t write about characters so much as inhabit them, as comfortable in the voice and world of a fading lounge singer as that of an aging hustler or a middle-aged poet. “Drei Alter Kockers” draws together the disparate pasts of three Toronto pensioners – a concentration camp survivor, a capo in the same camp, and a low-level mob killer who dispatches his victims with a piano-wire garrotte – and builds toward a final confrontation in a Bathurst Street apartment building which one of the characters refers to as “Little Tel Aviv.”
It is difficult to find fault with the stories in All the Lonely People, but the collection as a whole suffers from a lack of critical apparatus: there is no information as to the source of the stories, and no dates given for initial publications. The volume, instead, is organized along subtle thematic lines, with elements from individual stories gaining resonance and force from their placement beside or in opposition to other stories.
If All the Lonely People highlights Callaghan’s skill at inhabiting the voices of a broad spectrum of humanity, Raise You on the River highlights Callaghan’s own inimitable voice and character. A collection of essays, travel pieces, interviews, and remembrances, Raise You on the River is another 500-page tome; while some of the entries sprawl, they never fail – individually and collectively – to hold the reader’s attention.
The non-fiction volume weaves together motifs and themes, regardless of the ostensible form or purpose of any individual work. Thus, an early encounter with Billie Holliday (which leaves the young Callaghan speechless) serves as a counterpoint to “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” a winding piece about bluesmen Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGee much later in the volume. Two pieces praise Mavis Gallant and Joyce Carol Oates (the Oates entry is particularly strong), while an analysis of Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House is at once a cogent piece of critical writing, a powerful dissection of grief, and an investigation into what it means for a writer to put herself in the skin of another.
While much of the collection dates from nearly a half-century ago, they remain vital. Callaghan writing about Trudeau (the first one) is a thing of conflicted beauty, while his letter home from the Black September War in 1970 is genuinely suspenseful, despite its age.
Each of the two new volumes serves as a powerful reminder of Callaghan’s consummate skills, but it is when the two books are taken together that one truly sees the scale and force of Callaghan’s work. As one might expect from any writer, the fiction and non-fiction share a series of concerns, themes, and motifs, including an attention to life in the urban underbelly, the legacy of the Holocaust, and a disconcerting fixation on women’s breasts. But the pieces in these two volumes go beyond that, and begin to engage in a dialogue with one another. Thus, a key turning point in “Because Y Is a Crooked Letter” has its roots – and gains its significance – from two selections about Callaghan travelling to Munich and the camp at Dachau. Similarly, a narrative line in the story “Out Thirteenth Summer,” about a father teaching his son to box, resonates against Callaghan’s conversation with Oates.
A piece in Raise You on the River even addresses my concern about the fiction collection. As Callaghan recounts helping his father collect some of his talks for publication, he reminds the reader of the structure of Morley Callaghan’s Complete Short Stories, “which he insisted were to be printed without the original publication dates. That this process frustrated a certain kind of professional academic pleased him to no end.”
Taken together, these thousand-odd pages are a profound testament to a unique Canadian voice and vision, a keen talent and far-reaching, incisive intellect.