Satire was sparse in Canada in 1962 when Kildare Dobbs, an Irishman by way of India and Africa, published his first book, Running to Paradise. Stephen Leacock had been dead for more than 20 years, Mordecai Richler had yet to publish either The Incomparable Atuk, his detonation of Canadian cultural nationalism, or Cocksure, his salacious takedown of Hollywood film moguls.
Perhaps it was to encourage wit, keen observation and skilfully turned phrases that the judges that year for the Governor-General’s literary awards ignored actual fiction, including Brian Moore’s brilliant An Answer from Limbo, and instead honoured Running to Paradise, in a bizarre category, redolent of apples and oranges, called fiction and autobiographical writings.
Besides, they had reserved the non-fiction laurels for Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, a prophetic treatise on technology’s power to shape communications and human behaviour.
Reading Running to Paradise, 50 years after its publication, constitutes more than an homage to Mr. Dobbs, who died at 89 of kidney and congestive heart failure in a Toronto hospice on Monday, April 1 – no joke intended.
The memoir of Mr. Dobbs’s adventures in various parts of the former British Empire, with its title borrowed from his countryman, W.B. Yeats, is the first of his more than a dozen books.
It remains one of his best in the breadth of experience and the sharpness of his descriptions of human foibles and frailties, especially his own.
He is hilarious about his suspicious reception when he takes up a job as a schoolteacher in the early 1950s in a hamlet in Southwestern Ontario, which he calls Venice.
“There was no-one in sight, but the hair on the back of my neck bristled with awareness of Unseen Watchers,” he writes of the taciturn inhabitants of the real town of Florence, named not after the Italian city, but the British heroine of the Crimean war.
Mr. Dobbs has his way with Ontario prudery and homophobia in a spoof about attending a gay orgy, and sends up the 1960s penchant for the “happiness” pill by describing a Christmas morning program he broadcast while stoned on drink and drugs. Two furious listeners objected to him referring to Westminster Abbey as “a national bone-house and television studio for royal appearances.”
Not all of the pieces, many of which he wrote originally for broadcast or print in a relentless pursuit of a living wage, are played for laughs.
In Night Junction, we see him, a descendant of Irish gentry, serving as a lowly rating in the Royal Navy, sluicing his loneliness with drink in a wartime railway pub. An American G.I. “swaying gently,” his “medalled tunic unbuttoned,” appears without the usual props of “his” sort: “a gum-chewing girl” or a “hometown buddy.”
The soldier, “alone with his money, his medals, his skinful of liquor,” is desperate for friendship in a pub full of stony men hiding behind their broadsheets and their pints. He offers to buy a round and is repulsed with a “shocked flurry” of newspaper rattling.
In a few deft sentences, Mr. Dobbs has captured the niggardly British resentment of American largesse and disregard for decorum.
But the story doesn’t end there. Mr. Dobbs steps forward and is joined by a Canadian, an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. They gently escort the drunken soldier to a grimy couch and then repair to the Canuck’s room to drink whisky and exchange tales about books and writers. When the sound of the train pulling into the station interrupts their conversation several hours later, they wish each other luck and part – perhaps forever. Mr. Dobbs walks through the lobby, around the sleeping G.I., touching his cheek to check that it is still warm, and boards his train. “Sulphur fumes burned eyes and throat while I felt in pockets for ticket and papers. Soon I too would sleep.”
Solitary journeys, befriending strangers and weird encounters were integral parts of Mr. Dobbs’s life and career.