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2006 10 03
Imagining Toronto | Reading Daniel Jones’ Toronto Punk Novel, 1978

The perplexing amnesia affecting Toronto's cultural arbiters extends to some of the city's most provocactive and revealing tales. Shortly after being published, even award-winning novels and anthologies go rapidly out of print. Dead writers -- in some cases undone by the muse that drove them to write -- are forgotten even before their obituary hits the back pages of the arts section or (perhaps worse), are tepidly memorialized in inadequately maintained parks.

I had always thought that Toronto's forgetting of the lovely poet Gwendolyn MacEwen was the city's most depressing literary oversight. I thought that until I began reading the work of Daniel Jones, a Toronto poet and novelist who killed himself in 1994. Jones wrote poetry until the late 1980s, notably The Brave Never Write Poetry (Coach House, 1985). After that he concentrated on prose and short stories. His collections of stories, especially South of Queen Street (Streetcar Editions, 1989) and The People One Knows (Mercury Press, 1994), as well as his quasi-novel Obsessions (Mercury Press, 1992) caricatured, probed, and exposed facets of himself and the city that his readers were not quite ready to admit. Jones always was.

Jones' first and final novel, 1978, was published posthumously four years after his death. In spare but vivid prose, it parlays a narrative about self-destructive kids imitating the punk rock bands they admired and hated into a metaphor of the ways the city will sometimes smash you in the face, not out of malice but because you have asked for it. In 1978 the characters are damaged, addled, and abused but the outcomes of their troubles -- the half-intentional loss of the dishwashing job that pays the rent on a squalid apartment, whole weeks disappearing into an inebriated or hungover haze, creative ambitions thwarted by sloth or incompetence -- are nothing other than the darkest mirror of our own. His characters offer hazy slices of parts of the city we remember seeing or perhaps being: rich kids, drop-outs, psychiatric ex-patients, a drug dealer and his sycophant, diner cooks, taxi drivers, unwashed legions of punk bands and would-be punk performers. The difference -- or perhaps the similarity -- between 1978 and our own lives is the absence of a tidy resolution. Despite its tight prose, 1978 is as untidy as the bottom of a cab floor after 2 am on a Friday night.

I wasn't a punk in 1978, a year I spent riding a tricycle and learning to read. But even then I knew about the nihilistic desires that will suffuse a city at certain moments. A messy clot of bystanders gathered at Walpole and Greenwood when a child, the younger brother of someone we knew at school, was struck by a car; a fatal fire in a rooming house just off Gerrard late one night drew voyeurs who perched on cars like vultures, waiting for the bodies to be brought out in bags. There is something vicious in a city at these moments, and it isn't only gratification at having escaped the passing tragedy, but anticipation of being involved in one of our own. "It could have been me!" we bray at neighbours and the media, our hopefulness mirrored like ambulance lights flashing against our retinas.

1978 underscores an important truth about any city's literature: that some of its best novels are the most painful to read. And 1978 is painful, not because it is badly written (it is exceedingly lucid and tightly structured) but because it reveals necessary but difficult truths about Toronto, truths we slide away from like the tabloid we devour on the subway and then push into a recycling bin on the way up into the blistering radiance of downtown, forgetting it even as we stop over someone lying prostrate on a grating, forgetting for fear we might be confronted with our real selves. We want a city of light and coherence, but just as powerfully, we desire its squalid and incoherent corners. We recognise both, and forget them at our peril.

I spent several months looking for a copy of 1978. Many people seemed to have heard of it (others who should have, knew nothing) but few had read it. The few copies available on-line were offered at inflated prices. I asked at almost every used bookstore until a staff member at Babel Books (commenting that her boyfriend was reading a copy at that very moment), promised to pass the request on to her boss. A week later I stopped in an picked up my own copy. I read it, feeling more hungover by the page, but also somehow increasingly alive and both viscerally activated and frightened. I felt I had seen a side of Toronto the city reenacts periodically but still strains to forget.

In The Brave Never Write Poetry, Jones avers that "good poems are never written in Toronto". Perhaps it is not that good poems are never written in this city, but that they are so quickly forgotten.

(Imagining Toronto contributes reviews of new, classic, and evocative Toronto literature to Reading Toronto every second Tuesday.)

(By the way, if anyone has a spare copy of South of Queen Street, I would love to buy it from you. )
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 10/03 at 02:10 PM

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