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Reviewed by:
  • Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works
  • W.J. Keith (bio)
Priscila Uppal , editor. Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works. Guernica. 2007. 524. $20.00

In the culminating interview at the end of this impressive collection of essays, William Kennedy describes Barry Callaghan as 'noted pool and horseplayer, high roller and artist, who writes powerful poetry, has reported on wars, taught literature, founded and run a literary magazine, fronted a TV show, sung the blues, and has perpetually told wondrous stories and stirring lies.' Not the conventional pattern for a writer who becomes the subject of a 500-page academic book. In consequence, this will not be a conventional academic review.

Although most of the contributors (including Callaghan himself) are technically classifiable as academics, this is no dry scholarly tome. It is comprehensive, informative, compelling. The sole dud among the essays is an unwitting parody of a scholarly article that brings the burden of some twenty volumes of 'theory' to bear on a four-page short story that can get along very well without it. For the rest, Priscila Uppal has done a thorough job in assembling the right people to present the case for this many-sided writer who, as she notes, laboured long under the shadow of his at-least-once-famous father and has hitherto been much better known in Europe and beyond than in his native country.

At once, the coherence implicit in his many varied interests becomes clear. Even if we confine our attention to his creative activities, he is notable for his poetry (The Hogg Poems), his paintings and drawings (he might well have become a visual artist), his short fiction (The Black Queen Stories), his two novels, his journalistic articles (Essays and Encounters - two out, one still to come), his memoir (Barrelhouse Kings), his translations (too numerous to list), and his editorial and publishing activities (Exile and Exile Editions). It could be argued that he has established himself, in the most exact sense of the phrase, as Canada's most versatile man of letters.

And yet . . . if one turns from this collection of eulogies to his writings, it becomes equally clear that a good percentage of the contributors are admirers, friends, and even cronies of Callaghan. Fair enough, but a hint of cliquishness obtrudes. Notably absent is the aggressive, look-for-a-chink-in-the-armour approach that is so conspicuous in his own stance towards the subjects he chooses for his articles and interviews. Do some necessary qualifications need to be made? [End Page 501]

I believe so. The dominating qualities that emerge from a reading of his work are those of the relentless, abrasive, or (to employ his own favoured vocabulary) shit-stirring investigative journalist. Much has been made, for instance, of his defiant interview of Golda Meir in 1970, yet their personalities appear remarkably similar: tough, determined, heedless of contrary views. By the same token, his sniping at such establishment figures as Donald Creighton or Hugh MacLennan may well stem from an uneasy suspicion that their prejudices are the obverse of his own.

He paints himself (along with others) in heightened colours as a lifelong 'bad boy,' a rebel against cant and the official decencies (his contempt for 'respectable people' is evident throughout). Yet there are signs that he is less original than hewould have us believe - an updated version of the conventionally unconventional nineteenth-century Bohemian, eager 'pour épater le bourgeois.' In some respects he is a victim of the blindnesses of his own times. Thus in Barrelhouse Kings he will quote a 1950s news-cutting to expose the racism of the period, but regularly refers to 'WASPS' without any consciousness of a double standard. If he is viewed clinically, from outside, one is aware of many chips on his shoulders, many motes in his eyes.

A skewed view? Perhaps, but no more so that the enthusiastic skewed view of Uppal's collection. Callaghan never spares those he dislikes; why should they spare him? I welcome this book for its challenge to current assumptions, and I have learned much from it. But its basic position should be approached with skepticism. It may well be the truth, but not...


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