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Barrelhouse Kings: A Memoir

by Barry Callaghan

Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist

by Denis Sampson

Early in his memoir Barry Callaghan describes his younger self standing outside his house, gazing at an upper window where his father, novelist Morley Callaghan, is at work. It is nighttime and Callaghan père appears as an iconic figure – framed, illuminated, and elevated. That image is also an apt preface for the Brian Moore biography by Denis Sampson, a professor at Vanier College in Montreal. Both memoir and biography bear testimony to the centrality of the father-son relationship in the lives of sons who are writers. While Callaghan filters the father-son relationship through the fictions of autobiography, Sampson traces it more objectively through the 27 novels of Brian Moore.

Callaghan, whose literary activities range from poetry and fiction to television journalism, is a talented memoirist. He avoids the extremes of idolatry and demonization that generally mar accounts of distinguished parents by their children. Rather he conveys what is surely the norm – profound ambivalence marked by anger and love. He charts the complicated process in which tensions simmer, surface, subside, and allow the relationship to resume on a new footing.

He manages to give full weight to contradictory emotions largely through technical expertise. Noting that no family has a linear awareness of itself but that lives are layered, he meshes his own experiences with those of his father, weaving them together seamlessly across the years. Hence two events separated by a decade are aligned as the climax of his narrative. One is Morley’s return, orchestrated by his son, to the Paris they have known at different times. The other is the Toronto celebration for Morley’s last book, A Wild Old Man on the Road.

Callaghan includes a series of vignettes of other distinguished forefathers – Ernest Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, Alexander Calder, Samuel Beckett, and Northrop Frye. “I was lucky,” he says, “in meeting great old men and having a great old man for a father.”

The “old” used rhetorically by Callaghan applies literally to Moore’s father, who was 54 when his son Brian was born. Perhaps his advanced age was a factor in their conflicted relationship. James Moore was a prominent Belfast doctor, much revered by the community but experienced as an implacable deity by his son, who felt unable to satisfy his expectations or equal his stature.

Brilliant in English and weak in math, Brian Moore emerged from adolescence unqualified for university, unsure about his future, and dogged by a sense of failure that never left him. What also never left him was a hatred for the patriarchal structures of the old-fashioned family, the Catholic church, and the militaristic school run by priests. That hostility explains many of the salient features of his life and work.

The memorable characters of his fiction are those, like himself, damaged or marginalized by the patriarchy. His sympathetic portraits of lonely spinsters or sexually adventurous women – Judith Hearne, Mary Dunne, and Eileen Hughes – are among his best.

Sampson explains the perceived gap between Moore’s accomplishments and his reputation by his refusal to pander to the media’s desire to cast the author as oracle and celebrity. Another factor is surely his habit of uprooting himself periodically and changing geographical locations and national affiliations. For instance, he maintains the Canadian citizenship from his years in Montreal, but now makes his home in California.

Each book has its own distinction. Together they raise some interesting questions. Callaghan in his education, athletic ability, profession, and place of residence follows in his father’s footsteps. Moore, on the other hand, scripts his life in opposition to everything his father stood for.

Callaghan attributes his benign parentage to luck. But what, in fact, are the determining factors? Generational, temperamental, or genetic? And is luck for the man the same as luck for the writer? Is the writer not shaped more by the forces he resists than by the ones he admires? And, if that is so, is it better to have a happy paternal experience, or a painful one that provokes a heap of great books but leaves one unhappy and unfulfilled?


Reviewer: Joan Givner

Publisher: McArthur & Company


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 450 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-55278-000-7

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1998-11

Categories: Memoir & Biography

Reviewer: Joan Givner

Publisher: Doubleday Canada


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 336 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-385-25799-6

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: November 1, 1998

Categories: Memoir & Biography