At Last, a Novel with Something to Say About My Generation
About twice a month, I stop by the bookstore near my office, and scan the racks of elegantly bound new novels and stories. There’s something horribly depressing about it — all those pages of dreary, humorless writing about unreal characters in implausible situations. Just once, I think, I’d like to read something by someone of my own generation, who has something interesting to say about our world. If he had a sense of humor, that would be a nice bonus. Does anyone still write that sort of book?
Somebody just did. His name is David Eddie and, by a nice coincidence, I had the pleasure of attending high school with him.
Back then, nobody would have picked out Eddie for greatness. We all liked him for his extraordinary patience and sweetness of manner, but it was also true that his main scholastic distinction was an uncanny ability to mimic barnyard animals.
Well, it just goes to show that nobody knows less about you than the people you went to school with. This week, David Eddie published Chump Change, a novel that may be the funniest new work of fiction since Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s hilarious story of a surly young professor in postwar England. Chump Change is based on Eddie’s own checkered life — a clerk at Newsweek, a freelance journalist in Toronto, and eventually a scriptwriter for CBC News. Outside of office hours, he drinks too much, smokes illegal drugs, chases girls, wastes his time, and wonders why on earth anybody would make the idiotic decision to try to produce literature in a television-watching era.
Few autobiographical novels can ever have presented so unflattering a portrait of their author. It’s not a book for the squeamish. “I think,” its narrator muses in one of his typical — if least off-color — jokes, “‘free open bar’ the most beautiful three-word phrase in the English language, followed closely by ‘set for life’ and, of course, ‘I love you.’” Even fewer autobiographical novels can have offered less in the way of self-exculpation or excuse. “Go ahead and laugh,” Eddie’s protagonist thinks after an episode of failure. “They laughed at the Wright Brothers. Of course, they also laughed at all the people before the Wright Brothers, the ones who jumped off cliffs frantically flapping wooden wings or clutching their propeller beanies.”
Eddie is a brilliant humorist. But like all great satirists, he is also, at bottom, a moralist. He catches the casual brutality of his journalist colleagues. “The only time they ever seemed to laugh or crack a joke, was when some nun was skewered in a freak accident, or an innocent peasant village was buried under a deluge of molten lava.”
He mocks the corrupt blandishments of television. “I mean,” he says after seeing someone he admires endorsing a product on the tube, “I know you’re supposed to distinguish between what people say in commercials and what they say at other times, but it casts doubts on their other statements. What if Jesus had said, ‘Consider the lilies of the field — and while you’re at it, consider Sheckey’s sandals. If camels are the ships of the desert, then Sheckey’s are the sails!’ No one would have taken his other statements as seriously, and where would we be today?”
Above all he describes, and worries about, a world in which thousands of highly educated and intelligent young men and women seem content to live aimlessly: hostile to responsibility, uninterested in serious work, delighting in the most sordid pleasure. It’s not a complete description of our world, but it’s a description of a very real part of it.
Not everybody will like Chump Change, but I can’t remember when I last read a new novel that made me laugh louder or more often. I’ve read it twice already, and I look forward to re-reading it again and again. And I will not be at all surprised if, when my high school class gathers to celebrate our 50th reunion, the highlight of the evening is a performance by our most distinguished classmate, David Eddie, Grand Old Man of Canadian Letters, yodelling the best and boldest of his animal calls.