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A connoisseur of the bizarre, Crad Kilodney railed against hypocrisy of the world

Author Crad Kilodney

Scott MacDonald/The Canadian Press

He was a curmudgeon and a misanthrope who disavowed his family and his name. He was a mostly self-published author whose literary life was conducted largely on the streets of Toronto, hawking books with titles such as Bloodsucking Monkeys from North Tonawanda, Suburban Chicken-strangling Stories and Putrid Scum to people he disdained, in an adopted city he loathed. He railed constantly against the hypocrisy and stupidity of the world.

And yet. When Crad Kilodney died of cancer on April 14 at the age of 66, he was genuinely mourned by those who knew him best.

For all of them he was a one-off, by no means a literary genius, but a unique character, an off-the-wall satirist, even a nihilist, with a streak of charitable good will toward at least a chosen few.

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No one is quite sure what caused Mr. Kilodney to erase his past, or who his parents were, or whether he had any siblings. In fact, most of those who knew his real name were unwilling to reveal it, presumably to honour his wishes. But when Charlie Huisken, long-time owner of This Ain't the Rosedale Library bookstore in Toronto, lamented on his Facebook page the passing of Crad Kilodney, he initially wrote "a.k.a. Lou Trifon." (This last part has since been removed.)

What is known is that Crad Kilodney hailed from Jamaica, a neighbourhood in the New York borough of Queens, that he was from a Greek family, and that he had a degree in astronomy from the University of Michigan. Even then, he told his friend and chronicler, the writer Lorette C. Luzajic, man delighted not in him: "I had 15 roommates in college, and all of them disliked me. I can't say I blame them."

However, Mr. Kilodney hitched his wagon not to distant stars, but to the nearer ones of the publishing universe. He took a job with Exposition Press, a vanity house in Hicksvillle, N.Y., that specialized in works too personal, too esoteric or simply too ill-written for mainstream publishers. It was this exposure to weird fiction, conspiracy theories and bizarre theses that helped shape his idiosyncratic attitude to fiction. It also provided material for some of his best short stories, especially in the collection Girl on a Subway, his most restrained title and one of only a handful of books he published with mainstream houses.

According to Richard Grayson, in a 2007 post for the website Reluctant Habits, Mr. Kilodney, already a decided misanthrope, left the United States out of disgust with "Watergate and U.S. culture generally."

Jaymz Bee, an author and on-air host at Toronto radio station JAZZ.FM91, recalls Mr. Kilodney's explanation of how he was able to come to Canada without being drafted for the Vietnam War: "When an army psychiatrist asked him, 'If you were in a crowded theatre and you smelled smoke, noticing a fire in the corner of the building, what would you do?' He answered without a beat: 'I would get up and walk out of the theatre quietly.'"

So much for the communal military impulse.

But his disposition was not much improved by life in his adopted country. Soon after arriving in Canada, Mr. Kilodney took a series of thankless jobs with a succession of publishers, from sales rep to warehouse clerk. He'd had some very modest writing success – having sold an unsolicited story to the now defunct, satirical magazine National Lampoon – and decided to try his luck selling his work on the streets of Toronto.

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And so he did. From 1978 through 1995, he made a meagre living hawking more than 30 titles under his own Charnel House imprint. He became a minor Toronto landmark, a fixture at the University of Toronto, on Yonge Street and around the Toronto Stock Exchange.

He would wear a cardboard sign around his neck, reading something like Rotten Canadian Literature or Worst-selling Author. According to his long-time friend, the poet and novelist Stuart Ross, he would display only one book, in his right hand, and hold his ever-present pipe in his left. The rest of the books – Literature for the Brain-Dead, Foul Pus From Dead Dogs, The Charnel House Anthology of Bad Poetry (he was a connoisseur of terrible verse), and his most infamous title, Lightning Struck My Dick – lay in a leather satchel at his feet.

He supplemented such income as he managed by writing an advice column for the Canadian porn magazine Rustler. As Rev. Crad Kilodney (he was apparently a Universal Life minister), he answered mail from people with sexual perversions, most of them probably made up. For an alternative weekly called Only Paper Today, he reviewed, exclusively, terrible books, mostly from vanity presses.

Believing as he did that the fix was in for "respectable" mainstream fiction and that most people were doltish or ignorant, Mr. Kilodney was never the most welcoming of street presences. The only ones with whom he let down his formidable armour of cynicism – which earned him a cult following, making his books modestly collectible – were those he considered intelligent and a number of devoted friends.

In 1988, to help prove his case against the CanLit establishment, he submitted a number of stories by famous writers such as Chekhov and Hemingway (names and titles often preposterously changed) to a CBC Radio literary contest. All were rejected by the jury, but whether they were taken in by the prank is unknown.

Mr. Kilodney had a visceral disdain for authority even before he was charged with selling commercial goods without a licence in 1991, the first Canadian writer ever prosecuted for attempting to sell his own work.

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He was also in the habit of tape-recording his frequently strange interplay with customers and kibitzers. He compiled the tapes under the title of On the Street with Crad Kilodney; they are now extremely rare.

Always a connoisseur of the strange and bizarre, Mr. Kilodney was, as might be expected, a staunch proponent of free speech, even defending the right of the neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel to deny the Holocaust.

Mr. Kildoney lived during his time in Toronto in a many-staired walk-up attic apartment, in which he remained even after his financial fortunes changed. In 1995, he received an inheritance – which may have been considerable; he would never say – and left the street for the stock market. He became a successful day trader, specializing in small mining stocks, and even, according to Ms. Luzajic, something of a philanthropist, donating to hospitals and to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Room at the University of Toronto.

Even his lifelong depression lifted, he told her: "It was never writing that depressed me. It was this city full of awful people." He always did have a gentle and supportive side, she insisted, "but you had to be patient to get beyond his brittle crustiness."

Still, he was lonely in his attic redoubt and took to inviting select friends over. Mr. Ross, who knew Mr. Kilodney since the late 1970s, says that the writer-turned-trader was highly organized. "On Sundays, I'd go to his place for dinner. There were always carefully prepared chicken breasts, NFL football games and a game of chess," at which he was apparently very accomplished.

Ms. Luzajic also notes his propensity for games, accompanied by a surprising prudishness.

"Earlier in our friendship, we played Scrabble. I won a lot because Crad hadn't played much, and I have played for years. He would grin and bear it, but the day I used a four-letter word, he became extremely upset. He was shocked that I could be so vulgar: It offended him. I told him that it was a perfectly good word that refers simply to lady parts, becoming pejorative much after its origins, I also said that I wasn't the one writing stories about men who have sex with chickens. But we never played Scrabble again."

He did not give up writing entirely, however, maintaining a blog and working on a project called Shakespeare for White Trash, "translating" all of the Bard's work into easily accessible language in much shorter form.

Finally, there's the question of Mr. Kilodney's literary legacy. Despite his own estimation of his work as superior to most Canadian mainstream literature, was it any good?

Stuart Ross offers a summing-up: "He was audacious and provocative, but his prose was a little workmanlike. His work is characterized by absurdity and nihilism, careful, but not extremely artful. However, in his more serious work, such as Girl on a Subway, he shows flashes of beautiful writing, especially in the final paragraphs of that story collection."

Whatever Lou Trifon had been, he refashioned himself into Crad Kilodney, a new identity in a new country. He became a cult figure, the subject of documentaries and even inspired a song (in the 1990s, a group called Armed & Hammered recorded Crad Kilodney Was Innocent). The day after he died, Ms.Luzajic, honouring a promise to him, launched the Crad Kilodney Literary Foundation. It may be that Crad Kilodney's most enduring fictional legacy will turn out to be himself.

A wake for Mr. Kilodney is being held on Wed., May 14, at 8 p.m. at The Painted Lady, 218 Ossington Ave., in Toronto.

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