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Scorned & Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics

by Bill Richardson

The title of Bill Richardson’s new book is taken from a painting by Emily Carr, but it’s the subtitle, Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics, that’s particularly revealing. Thanatos and campy Eros are the guiding muses of this entertaining travelogue that takes enormous liberties with the classification – “biography/Canadian history” – pinned on it by its publisher. God, the devil, Noah, and Job all play cameo roles here, a bit of a stretch for even the broadest definitions of what it means to be Canadian.

But I carp. A book about eccentrics has a certain licence to be quirkily written. The 17 discursive essays about cross-dressers and amputees, clairvoyants and hermits, pigeon keepers and cat fanciers, collectors of Barbie dolls and of shrunken heads, resulting from Richardson’s ramblings across the country last January and February in search of Canadian eccentrics are by times kinky, riotously funny, and anarchically dark. This surprised me in view of the much lighter touch exhibited by Richardson in his immensely popular Bachelor Brothers trilogy. But it shouldn’t have. A winner of the Stephen Leacock award for humour, Richardson is only following in the footsteps of the master who entertained a most nihilistic view of the world while writing his deliciously funny prose.

From the opening scene in Toronto’s “anaesthetically named” Mount Pleasant Cemetery where he pays his respects to Glenn Gould, death overhangs the journey until it well nigh catches up with the author. On his way to a place called Gravenhurst, after a lunch of “suicide wings,” and steering a rented black Cavalier, he comes within a whisker of the ultimate precipice. “A few months from now, I will attribute the fact that I can write down this story to pure, dumb luck, to random rescue. But in the moment it is like looking at a landscape of mercy, like gazing into the still and blameless heart of something I could never bring myself to believe in, and never hope to again.”

Oh, yes. What I haven’t mentioned but the above quote makes evident: The man writes like an angel