The satirical subjects of Edward Riche’s witty and stylish novel Easy to Like are, at first glance, an utter mismatch: wine-making in California and the bureaucratic clockwork that keeps the mandated showbiz of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. a-ticking. Riche, the author of the novels Rare Birds and The Nine Planets, bridges the terroirs of Sideways and The Newsroom through his protagonist Elliot Jonson, a Newfoundland-born Hollywood screenwriter and aspiring winemaker, whose life work, in a sense, boils down to making people like what he makes.
When he first appears to the reader, Elliot’s life in California is imploding. The middle-aged screenwriter’s wife has left him for their housekeeper; his son, embittered by his childhood as an actor, is incarcerated on drug charges. The prospects for his most recent movie idea, Nailed, is … well, screwed. “They don’t think Brokeback meets Passion of the Christ has an audience,” his agent explains. “They don’t buy the whole gay Jesus thing.”
Even worse, Elliot’s actual passion project, a winery in Santa Barbara, is short on cash, which prompts an associate to suggest producing a populist zinfandel. Faced with a choice between purveying inferior product and insolvency, Elliot instead flees to France.
When a near-expired passport keeps him in Toronto, Elliot’s channel-surfing inspires him to call in a favour and land the No. 2 position at the Mother Corp, which “did possess a certain charm in its inability to be slick.” There, he finds his Hollywood-bred instincts to find an audience at all costs compromised by the public broadcaster’s fuzzily defined requirements to reflect Canada.
One show titled Banff 911, a regionally representative drama meant to draw in the entire family, has ratings that are “[in]the range of the survey’s error.” Eventually, Elliot’s sole hit will come from a late-night show hosted by a fallen TV star that the newly appointed exec finds living in a ravine.
Riche, the St. John’s-based screenwriter who has worked on Canadian productions like The Boys of St. Vincent and Dooley Gardens, has great fun at the idea of bureaucrats creating entertainment. The CBC that he lampoons, neglecting to mention shows like Hockey Night in Canada and Dragons’ Den, presents a patronizingly high-minded reflection of the country: “It’s a Tim Hortons nation,” one character observes. “Who should expect a population whose favourite food is Kraft Dinner to go in for documentaries about Stockhausen?”
While smartly written, Easy to Like often feels too casually constructed and imagined (but not quite rambling enough to qualify as “picaresque”). The motivation for Elliot to find work at CBC is hardly present, the passages about wine production are mainly inaccessible to those who aren’t oenophiles, and the book presents a number of potentially amusing storylines – the cult next to the winery, in which worshippers wear loaves of bread as shoes; a wiretapping indictment involving major Hollywood players; a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation into French vines smuggled into California by Elliot – but leaves them all unripened.
On another level, this insouciant approach gives the reader enough breathing space to appreciate Riche’s gift for withering turns of phrase. Elliot, who is as commanding and detached in Toronto as he is incompetent and over-the-hill in Los Angeles, attends one CBC meeting where “[nothing]of substance was put forward, but it was all said in the ornate poetry of management non-speak.”
As a title, Easy to Like presents one fat target for a reviewer, but the book lives up to its promise by offering a spry, light-hearted defence of cultivated taste and an artist’s prerogative in the face of entertainment by committee.
Kevin Chong’s most recent book, the novel Beauty Plus Pity , has just been published.