Dad 1924 - 2014
Last weekend’s Globe and Mail ran a review of a novel called The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. The reviewer compared the work favourably to Graham Greene’s espionage themed thrillers, works which the author himself described as ‘entertainments’ and distinct from his other novels which he felt were more serious works of literature. Set in modern day West Africa, the reviewer astutely noted that the movements of the protagonist in The Laughing Monsters tend to mirror Marlow’s journey down the Congo River to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
I read the review Saturday in Montreal while seated at my sister’s dining room table. I remembered that Dad still had not got around to reading Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris despite my prodding. He'd also promised to read The Innocent by Ian McEwan. I decided to buy two copies of The Laughing Monsters and dispatch one to Dad. Denis Johnson wrote this story for us. After we’d both read it we could compare notes as we’ve always done with every John le Carre novel since I can’t remember when. Alas, this nanosecond of good intention was for naught as we’d buried Dad in Ottawa the previous day.
Dad was born in Montreal, the second child of British immigrants who met and married in Canada. He came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War. He served overseas with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator in a ‘plywood wonder,’ a two-man crew Mosquito night-fighter. Based in Lille, France after the collapse of Fortress Europe, he flew missions over France and Germany as a cold, wet and grumbling member of the KP-409 Nighthawks squadron: Midnight Is Our Noon. He was a good looking kid in uniform, pictures prove it. If hard times and aerial combat don’t kill you, they will certainly imbue you with a particular strength of character.
Fittingly, Dad slipped away peacefully on Remembrance Day with my sister at his bedside. She told him to go and see Robert, his eldest child, our late brother. Ann and I could not make Ottawa in time from Edmonton, however we wrote his obituary together and managed to meet the Ottawa Citizen’s deadline from a different time zone. And anyway, my father and I had a clean slate, no unfinished business other than unread books, nothing needing forgiveness. I was honoured to write and deliver the eulogy of a man whom I not only loved, but really, really liked. Talk about deadlines, Dad would appreciate that the words came together under pressure over a few beers in a bar the night before his memorial service.
Down in the basement here in Edmonton we have a fairly extensive library, the collected works of two families and at least two generations. My own contribution to the shelves of spines was seeded by Dad: Conrad, Forester, Greene, Lardner, le Carre, Maugham, Poe, Orwell… An appreciation of literature and an ongoing intellectual curiosity about nearly any subject are gifts from my father. ‘Our father’ I should say - my sister is a bookworm and our brother was a bookworm. Books have been a bond amongst the four of us, there was always one to lend, recommend or give. I know Dad was pleased when my first novel was published. I know he was even happier when a writer friend of his allowed that Murder Incorporated wasn’t half bad. It hurts me that he will never read my overdue second one. It hurts me that we will not share the experience of reading The Laughing Monsters.
Dad, you were always there. Well, you used to be. Godspeed.