Monday, March 29, 2010

Hugh, Come Back - I Love You

I'VE BEEN THINKING about Hugh Garner a lot lately.
Him and his sweater.
The Yellow Sweater, to be exact.
I read this iconic Canadian short story in Grade 13 at Markham District High School in 1979 when Can-Lit was being shoved down the unwilling throats of all but the most lit-loving teenagers.
I think I was willing.
I took two English courses in my last year at MDHS: advanced and enriched. The math? Not so much. I could spell good, that's all.
In one of those courses a slim collection of Canadian short stories was part of the curriculum. Sorry, can't recall the name of it. It was green, though, and had a collage of literary faces on it: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Hugh.
Hugh cuts a dashing figure, doesn't he?
All movie matinee idol and 1940s newspaperman rolled into one Brylcreem-slicked package.
Not only that, but my Hugh was a literary bad boy. A working class writer who lived (meagerly) off the earnings from his words, who badgered editors and producers for every nickel he could squeeze out of them. That's not the way things were done in Toronto the Good back in the day. Writers were genteel as a species, not squabbling over money because, generally speaking, they were university professors who looked at blue collars like Hugh with ill-disguised disdain.
Even to this day, people who write about Hugh Garner describe him as an oddity; worse, they slam his career as being spotty, uneven in its quality.
Go ahead, google him. You'll see. (Or start here, but not until you're done, because that would just be rude and I know you're not rude.) One graduate student actually did her thesis on Hugh, pontificating on the violence in his work and how that lessened him somehow.
I'm sure it must have hurt when she sat on that big kosher dill.
Whatever people have to say about him, he had a big impact on me.
His story The Yellow Sweater has stayed with me for 30 years – it was that good. Every time I write a story I think, vaguely, is it as good as The Yellow Sweater?
It never is, of course. But it is the bar to which I aspire.
I have a character rattling around in my head that resembles the salesman in Hugh's piece. He also reminds me of Hugh himself, with his cheap suit, shiny at the seat and the elbows, in a dark gray-green colour, his only suit, worn whenever it is needed. I don't know what this character wants. He hasn't told me yet. I'm thinking he will soon, though. His rattling is getting louder.
Maybe it's not a character.
Maybe it's Hugh, who died in 1979, the year I fell in love with The Yellow Sweater.
The year I fell for Hugh.


  1. oh Hugh, Hugh, Hugh ... he's all you ever talk about.

  2. I remember reading that story in the 11th grade. I don't think we actually studied it in class though (I was one of those keeners who read the whole lit book). It's one of those stories on which you can look back and see more than you did upon first read.

    I didn't realize Hugh was such a bad-ass. Nice!

  3. I particularly like Hugh's notes to his editor. ;-). I remember the grade 13 text book and liking the Alice Monroe story in it that had something to do, I recall, with a babysitter who got into some mischief.

  4. Cathy. I think that book you,re trying to remember is "Bird in the house." lol

  5. My, Lord. He died the year my youngest child was born! Great post! And, yes, I did wait to click on the link! Duly warned, mind you!

  6. Sounds like you had better English lit classes at MDHS than we had at Sir John A. (west side of Agincourt)However, our school managed to produce Barb Gowdy (she was a few grades ahead of me) so I guess we must not have been completely starved from good literature. I just don't recall reading Garner. Just a lot of Moodie and Atwood. Oh, and Chekov, not the Trek guy, Anton.

  7. That 'anonymous' comment? That's my Mom.
    Let me tell you something about my Mom.
    Years ago, and I'm talking YEARS, she borrowed by copy of Bird in the House, a novel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence. It is, without a doubt, one of my favourite books and I have read it many times.
    But not as many as Mom.
    She has it by her bedside and, when she can't sleep, she picks up Bird in the House.
    She reads it through, a bit at a time, then starts again.
    "Don't you read anything else?" I ask.
    "Sure," she says. "But I always come back to Bird in the House."
    It's become a bit of a joke for us and I laughed out loud when I saw her comment today.
    Good one, Mom!
    (See? I get my good looks AND my sense of humour from you!)

  8. Never ready it. Never HEARD of it. Obviously the lit classes at my high school were severely lacking. I have to find it. I crave a good read.

  9. I think about you and your writing all the time Cathy. I know a woman, or knew, because she died early this year, who didn't start writing until she was 45. Her first book was a collection of her short stories. I think maybe you should just collect yours and submit them to a publisher. And with your Friday Flash thing, you should have an ample enough collection in no time.

  10. Hmm. Never heard of Hugh - but he sounds like my kinda guy.

    Will check him out!


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