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2007 05 15
Rare Reads: Hugh Garner’s Forgotten Toronto Novel, Waste No Tears (1950)

Toronto author Hugh Garner (1913 to 1979) is best known for his Governor General's award-winning Hugh Garner's Best Stories (1963; reprinted regularly in Canadian literature anthologies), his magazine journalism, and his memorable Toronto novel, Cabbagetown. Readers of these works may not know that Garner wrote dozens of short stories and several other Toronto-focused novels, among them Silence on the Shore (1962), a novel set in a Toronto boarding house; The Intruders (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976), a kind of sequel to Cabbagetown; and Death in Don Mills (1975) and a follow-up, Murder Has Your Number (1978). While several generations of Toronto readers are familiar with the revised 1968 version of Cabbagetown, many may not know that the novel was published originally as a pulp paperback with a (very different) 'true-crime' ending for its protagonist, Ken Tilling. This was not Garner's only experiment with the genre: in 1950 (under the pseudonym "Jarvis Warwick", reportedly reflecting his domicile at the time, the Warwick Hotel on Jarvis Street) he published another pulp paperback, now almost forgotten and very rare, Waste No Tears, subtitled, "The Novel about the Abortion Racket."

Waste No Tears is a kind of memoir penned by Tom Matterson, a Cabbagetown son who spends twenty years making the ten-block journey from the street of his birth to 'the skidrow'. The narrative is circuitous, but in many ways the streets of his part of the city seem to lead inexorably in a single direction:
When I was a kid Waltham Avenue had not yet become a slum street. It was situated in a poor working-class district, but its tenants were decent people who believed in work, thrift, and of some day moving to one of the new residential districts that were springing up in the suburbs of our city. Many of them moved away over the years when I was a boy, but my family were left behind. It might have been my old man's drinking that stopped the Matterson family from getting ahead, or, as he claimed, it might have been bad luck. Whatever it was it kept us chained down to our little rented house on Waltham Avenue. We were still there when Waltham became an industrial street with the soap factory and the planing mill and the fish wholesaler's where there had formerly been rows of little houses like ours. (5-6)
Priced at twenty-five cents (and reportedly written in ten days), Waste No Tears was the kind of novel sold at news stands in racks above the reach of curious children. Told from the perspective of its male narrator, the novel would likely have appealed to both men and women for its lurid descriptions of rapacious sex and its depictions of 'skidrow' life and death, boozing, brawling, blackmail, and back alley abortions. In Waste No Tears, the men are always tight and the women loose, and it is this downward spiral of sexual incontinence and drunken regret that propels the novel toward its morality-play conclusion. Although Waste No Tears is more than half a century old and its sexist depictions of floozies and 'chippies' very much out of date (although its remarkable anger toward women is consistent with much of Garner's work), some of its descriptions, particularly of those men and women who finally find their way to 'skidrow', are depressingly current. As the narrator, Tom Matterson, says of himself,
You've probably seen me sometimes standing in front of the wine store on the corner, huddled up in an old army coat, shivering with the cold and D.T.'s, waiting for somebody I knew to come along and buy a bottle. (154)
Then as now, Toronto's most visible 'skidrow' is described occupying the quarter of Toronto east of Yonge Street and south of Carleton, skirting incompletely gentrified blocks all the way to the Don River: "Down in the depths of the city, washed by the murky waters of the dock-yards lies Skidrow, a dark den of intrigue and mystery, whose crumbling structures harbour the outcasts of the city." Indeed, this description finds resonance with "Skid Row", an essay published in The Underside of Toronto (1970), an anthology exploring the city's seamier side:
To the great majority of Torontonians or visitors to the city, skid row is an unknown land, a geographic limbo occupying a certain small section of the downtown area and considered a necessary evil. The average person considers it the home of the derelict, the alcoholic, and the bum, the group that occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder.
Waste No Tears gives voice to this district of Toronto in a way few other Toronto tales have managed to do. Indeed, the closest seem to be the stories and poems spilled from the pen of Ted Plantos in The Universe Ends at Sherbourne & Queen (1977) and The Shanghai Noodle Killing (2000) and Richard Scrimger's Toronto Book Award short-listed novel Crosstown (1996). It seems surprising that while this area has been the subject of so many studies and so much social activism, so few of its stories have found their way into print, and the work of its most prolific chronicler, Hugh Garner, has fallen so far out of fashion.

The upside, perhaps, is that an original copy of Waste No Tears is a valued rarity and now sells for upwards of $150. Moreover, readers interested in a Hugh Garner renaissance may look forward to the forthcoming publication of a uniform edition of Garner's entire oeuvre (including, apparently, Waste No Tears, by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box (in the works, although a firm publication date has not yet been established).

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature for Reading Toronto.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 05/15 at 10:59 AM

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