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Naked Eye

by William Burrill

Now, more than ever – when our first Nagano champion turned out to be a pot-smokin’ dude and when Ice Storm ’98 prompted all the international media coverage of a broken light bulb in a snowmobile store – Canadians need the humour professionals to make it all worthwhile. We need the funny guy with the regular newspaper column, a Peter C. Newman, 30 years younger or a P.J. O’Rourke with a Canadian Tire outlet in Kabul.

William Burrill may well be that man, but only part of the time.

Naked Eye – the title refers partly to Burrill’s seven-year residency as columnist at eye, the Toronto freebie weekly – is an anthology of the two-fisted curmudgeon’s greatest hits, 60-odd short punch-ups on topics foreign and domestic. The publicity material suggests a Hunter Thompsonesque presence, which does Burrill few favours; buzzwords like ‘dangerous’ and ‘irreverent’ are currently an invitation to total disinterest. The idea is that Burrill is a maverick – a sort of killer clown of Bytown, a shit-disturber and hilarious Mr. Grumpy who won’t let Christ have His birthday without dreaming up a lounge act for Him.

Mostly, Burrill is looking for a laugh or two, the kind that range from rueful ain’t-it-the truth snickers to outright guffaws at the irritants of everyday life: health nuts, real estate jargon, students, incorrectly cooked Kraft Dinner, hospitals, and people who refuse to wake up and smell the beer.

That many of these pieces succeed is due to Burrill’s whip-smart style: there isn’t a bloated sentence or uneconomical thought in the collection, and his ear for suburban dumb talk is faultless (the Ontario homeboy dialogue in ‘My Life As A Dick’ is, as they say, acutely observed). There’s an inspired take on recycling dead people (‘Putting The Deadbeats To Work’) and a few of the travel columns handily hit the mark.

But there’s humour, and then there’s the stuff that isn’t. Checking into that Vegas hotel to look for Elvis has been done before, as have guides on how to survive office parties and camping trips. There are too many shitlists and fart jokes. Burrill’s twin obsessions – fantasizing about being a private detective and about being Ernest Hemingway – are weirdly behind the demographic. Because Burrill’s newspaper is pitched at the young – half the cover stars seem to be techno musicians – it’s unlikely that eye’s scenesters understand – or read, even – references to Morley Callaghan (or paragraphs that begin, almost unbelievably, with “Shay schweetheart”). Burrill’s of the generation that used to jeer at lime green stretch pants (Burrill uses them as shorthand for conservatism at least four times); this is not only an old-hippie trope but a dizzyingly misjudged one at that (hasn’t he been past a club in the last few years?).

Possibly this collection is a retirement of sorts – Burrill should next pursue that Novel In The Drawer of The Damned he’s always talking about. Still, for a writer who – in a manner of speaking – has had to blow chunks for a living, the old guy’s done okay.