this is not a review: ‘1979’, by ray robertson


I’ve said this before but am always happy to say it again:  my favourite books are those where nothing happens, except that whole worlds change.

Ray Robertson is brilliant at this seemingly nothing but really everything  approach to storytelling, most recently in his novel, 1979.

In a nutshell, the book is about a year in the life of Tom Buzby, 13 year old paper boy in small town Ontario. He has a mother, a father, an older sister, lives in an ordinary neighbourhood, has ordinary friends and pretty much lives the ordinary life of a thirteen year old paperboy in small town Ontario.

That’s the bit where nothing happens.

And it’s essential.

It’s the yin to the yang.

The yang being the part where whole worlds change, the part where you pay attention to life or you don’t. The book is about paying attention.

Three things are happening in the novel:

1— Tom Buzby goes about his ordinary life… ordinary for him, delightful for the reader… this is a kid who loves books and music  and is having his horizons expanded in both departments. Being privy to his inner thoughts is a joy in itself… so honest are his meanderings it’s hard not to flinch a wee bit as we recognize our own young selves (especially if we, too, were kids who loved books and music and our own company and felt a little different, a touch insecure and out of step with all the ‘supposedly’ cool kids). Tom’s the kid with the North Stars when everyone else is wearing Nike.

2—Tom’s family goes about their business. His mother has found god and run away with the local preacher to open a courier company. His dad is currently making ends meet as a tattoo artist, and his sister is figuring out a way to get to Toronto so she can lose her virginity. When she nearly dies Tom uncharacteristically says a prayer and plays (recently discovered) Glenn Gould “…because it’s the closest thing to religious music I owned.”

3— And here’s the best part… characters we never meet, or meet very briefly, also go about their business.

And we’re privy to that through regular interruptions to the the larger story by way of headlines and light journalistic type slice-of-life pieces (that you would love to read in actual newspapers) about people who appear in the book (and in our life) like extras in a movie. Those surrounding us in our communities, towns and cities, whether we know them or not, and whether or not we even notice them.

What it seems Robertson has done is create his own version of Spoon River Anthology,  by Edgar Lee Masters, a book that uses poetry to chronicle the lives of residents in a small town. Tom is introduced to the book by the friend of his older sister (and I’m introduced to the book by Robertson’s book, by this  book). The process feels a little like what’s known as the Droste effect, where the image you’re looking at is holding the image of what you’re looking at and so on. Like the old Pot of Gold chocolates cover.

These headlines are the stories we’d like told about ourselves… or that would be so useful to know about the ‘extras’ on our own movie sets. The waitress, the cashier, the history teacher, the widower, the lawyer (who, hilariously, if you like lawyer jokes, pretty much has no story), the guy who whistles for no apparent reason, the Camaro that drives too fast down a side street.

And the old woman who lives in a shack… and who one day dies “she just died… and there was no need to find out when or where she was born or what her last name was… and the only ones who really missed her were the cats… until they, too, forgot all about her.”

Even death gets its own headline, its own ‘voice’ through which it offers advice for the living, which could easily be cliche but doesn’t come off as such in this context. If anything, it’s a reminder. If you’re lucky, an epiphany.

Robertson also nails the era through language, music, politics, clothing, food and drink, the change to metric, the way the indie corner stores slowly became Mac’s Milk and how the product lines, the shelving, the lighting just looked and felt so different. He conveys small town Ontario, with its factories and clotheslines, beautifully, and with a nod of obvious affection, which it so richly deserves and too rarely sees in literature.

“Paul Lynde was our Oscar Wilde. Hollywood Squares was our Algonquin round table.”

A small part of the book but not a small part of the story is Tom’s near death experience in a sewer, which everyone assumes he must have learned so much from but which wasn’t the case. “It felt as if I’d be letting them down if all I told them was the truth.”  And therein lies the nub of it all, the thing every single one of us can relate to… this idea that on some level we’re fake, not good enough. As if the ordinariness of our lives just doesn’t quite cut it.

There are those who may only see 1979  as a book where not much happens… but they’d be missing the whole point. It’s actually more of a clever trick wrapped in a book and what it does most brilliantly is show us how we’re conditioned (in literature and in life) to notice only the shiny objects, the noise, to watch the magician’s hand, even though we know full well that’s not where the magic is.

Different Yet Similar….

Ray Robertson’s 1979 , and Brother, by David Chariandy. Totally different books in structure, voice and experience, and yet… similar in how they successfully use place as character, the attention to details that are never over done, but feel true, and the surprisingly and sensitive perspectives of young boys boys who are not like everyone else around them.


Available online from your favourite indie booksellers, or mine…
Blue Heron Books
Hunter Street Books


treasure among my stacks

Stumbled over during a recent bout of perusing…

“He says, slowly, that there is an island in Grand Lake called Glover Island. And Glover is the largest island on the island of Newfoundland. And on Glover there is a pond. And on that pond there is a smaller island. I want, he says, to paddle up Grand Lake and portage over Glover Island. Get to that pond and cross to the island and spend a night. He says there’s only one other island in the world with a lake holding an island, and a pond on that island with an island in that pond, and that place is Sumatra. And if you took a globe and put a finger on Newfoundland and another finger on Sumatra you’d see they’re pretty much on opposite sides of the earth.”   —Excerpt from a story by Michael Winter, as found in the essay: The Ends of the Earth, by Lisa Moore (The Walrus, July/August, 2006).

But what Michael Winter story is it from??

“Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June! She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-gray frizz with Gord’s old golf cap—Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantel clock.” —Opening paragraph, ‘Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass’ by Carol Shields

“God, this is what literature is supposed to sound like—one man simply telling another man the simple humiliations and agonies and always-too-late epiphanies that add up to his and everybody else’s life—and not a sack of tricky tropes to be toted out and professionally employed in order to expertly con the reader into imagining a pretty little Book Club-approved daydream.”from What Happened Later, by Ray Robertson

“I grew up cynical, married an optimist. A field biologist who held the legs of songbirds pinched between thumb and fingers and described their plumage to me. We hiked through boreal forest, scrambled above alpine meadows, strolled the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. We walked beneath the ten thousand rustling wings of crows bedding down for the night on the electrical wires beside a remnant stand of trees. As we walked, beneath our feet we found the torn feathers of a grouse, the long shadow of a hawk. Death, I saw, is part of the beauty of this world, as painful as it is. And so, I learned to balance here. Walking with my optimist, I found I could stay standing even if the world would not stay still.”from the essay ‘A Container of Light’ by Lisa Martin-Demor, The New Quarterly #120.

“Everyone wants in on it. Everyone! Not just the cat, the pig and the dog. The horse too, the cow, the rhinoceros, the orang-outang, the horn-toad, the wombat, the duck-billed platypus, you name it. There’s no peace any more and all because of that goddamn loaf of bread… It’s not easy being a hen.” —from ‘The Little Red Hen Tells All’, in the collection Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood

“I remember a story my father once told me. A boy is playing in the sandbox in the schoolyard, and darkness falls. He hears the voice of his mother calling him in for supper. On his way home, he loses his way in the shadows and walks until his feet are sore. He curls up against the side of a stranger’s house and falls asleep. In the morning, the sun pries open his eyelids. He is back in the schoolyard. He realizes he is not the boy at all, but the sandbox, and so he is already home.” — from ‘Bouncing’, in the collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, by Stuart Ross



this is not a review: what happened later, by ray robertson

My favourite books are always those where not much happens except entire universes quietly change. Both the characters’ and mine.

Ray Robertson’s What Happened Later is such a book. I read it twice last year. Each reading brought me deeper into the language with layers yet to be discovered.

It’s all about the sentences.

Written in two story lines—the first, a fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s last road trip, a kind of going home, to find his ancestral roots in Quebec. The second, a fictionalized account of a boy named Ray Robertson who’s trying to get away from home—1970’s small town, Ontario—and find a copy of On the Road.

In alternate chapters and distinct voices, the stories weave back and forth through time—and not much happens. Except life. On every page, in very sentence—every word is full of what feels like absolutely raw truth—not fact necessarily (it’s fiction, right?), but truth. 

The chapters play beautifully off each other—from the innocence and simplicity of Ray’s life and his introduction to Jim Morrison:

“Before Jack Kerouac could change my life, Jim Morrison had to save it. Every Almighty needs an ambassador down below to do his dirty work. Mine wore tight brown leather pants and shouted out his rock and roll couplets like it somehow actually mattered.” 

—to Kerouac’s bennies for breakfast, falling down drunk with booze and resentment, guilt; his brilliance in offering up what every story needs:

“… a flesh and blood body on the other side of the book telling the story and not just a bunch of nouns and verbs and adjectives held together under house arrest by a bully bunch of rules of composition some mastermind mammon cooked up to keep everybody talking and thinking and living the exact same way. Because ask yourself this, Mac: Were we born and do we suffer and do we die just so we can all sound the same? What a spit in God’s eye, that.” 

The book begins close to the end of Jack’s life and close to the beginning of Ray’s, but ultimately, we’re left mid-stream in both, knowing how each will end. Along the way we see Kerouac in a new light as he mourns the loss of a Georgia pine, holds a kitten up to see the moon, asking aloud how science could explain that; we discover tenderness, vulnerability, and a man whose greatest desire was “…to be Cervantes alone by moonlight.”

I can’t think of a better shape or tone for this book. There’s an almost physical sense of movement with each chapter—from the jaded ‘star’ who’s had anything but a normal life, desperate to get away from society’s narrow-minded idea/treatment of ‘fame’—

“Remember how last week you were a spontaneous prose poet, a singular bard of bop, a lyrical visionary declaiming a previously unknown hipster-rich American underbelly? Yeah, well, now you’re a sloppy, undisciplined, self-indulgent media creation prone to sentimentality, immorality, and obvious sensationalism. Next, please.”

—to Ray, living in this tiny, loving world of grandparents, leather sleeved sports jackets; where he so sweetly sings the national anthem to his father in the bathroom; a place where his greatest career challenge is climbing the ladder of the Sears sales team; a world of wry observations—when he accidentally kisses his own shoulder while making out with his first girlfriend, he reflects “…but that’s okay too…”. This mini philosopher, obsessed with finding the answers to life through Kerouac—all such delicious irony.

Despite my love of the fiery, gorgeous, richly written Kerouac chapters—at the close of each, I found myself turning the page, eager and curious to read more of young Ray, and immerse myself in the very different but just as honest tempo of his life. In many ways it’s Ray’s story, but not completely, because to tell either of the two on their own would render both less.

—This is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours.  Jack Kerouac, Tristessa  (Epigraph, What Happened Later, by Ray Robertson, 2008, Thomas Allen)


From the Re-Run Series:  originally appeared in February, 2010.