Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ray Smith is Heading Home

Ray Smith is packing the last of his belongings and preparing to leave Westmount for Cape Breton. The Westmount Examiner and Wayne Larsen say farewell.

Turning the page: New book, new life for Ray Smith

by Wayne Larsen

Turning the page: New book, new life for Ray Smith
As one of CanLit’s original enfants terrible of the late 1960s—barging onto the literary scene right in that sweet spot of rebellious creativity—Ray Smith can never be classified as a ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ writer; that label was forever denied him four decades ago with the publication of his first book, ‘Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada.’
But then, Ray Smith has never been one for labels. And anyone familiar with his relatively small but potent body of work will agree that no author of Smith’s quirky versatility deserves to be categorized at all.

The only thing that can ever be safely stated about Smith is that he is among the country’s best yet under-appreciated writers — a novelist and satirist of the first order whose witty and irreverent prose have surfaced once again in a brand new novel, ‘The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins’.

As the first in a projected series of what Smith describes as Bottomly misadventures, the title character is introduced as a Canadian air force intelligence officer hot on the trail of a bizarre series of military murders and other assorted crimes, misdemeanours and absurdities. The result is a complex, comic tale that unfolds like a walk through an unfamiliar neighbourhood — you never know what awaits around the next corner.

The narrative style, different again from most of Smith’s previous work, fluctuates between elegant and downright rude and never lets up in its sheer lack of respect for anything even remotely respectable. As usual, nothing is sacred in Smith’s topsy-turvy view of the Canadian establishment. And in the grandest tradition of contemporary satire, he gleefully shoots down everything in his path. This may be Major Jack Bottomly’s misadventure, but the very bureaucratic military setting provides Smith with countless opportunities to flaunt his gift for lampoon — and he takes full advantage of each one.

"Jack is not the kind of guy you'd want to spend a lot of time with," Smith says of his

character — a man whose flaws really do fill a book.

Going home

The publication of ‘The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins’ comes at a major turning point in the author’s life. He has recently retired from a 35-year career as an English teacher at Dawson College, where he became well-known among hundreds of students over the years as ‘The Man Who Loved Jane Austen’ — not coincidentally the title of his 1999 novel.

Not only that, but after living in Westmount since 1982, first on Burton Avenue then in a basement apartment on Grosvenor just above Sherbrooke, Smith is moving out.

Now, he says, he’s going home.

Home for Smith is Mabou, a village on Cape Breton, where he was born and raised. He may have lived and worked in Westmount for most of his life, made the daily trip to Dawson along Sherbrooke Street and buried himself in research at the Westmount Public Library, but hearth and home has always been the house built by his grandfather in Mabou, a dozen miles from Inverness.

Smith speaks of Mabou with the affection and pride of a true native son. Describing it as the most musical village in Canada, he claims that if he were to take a 4-iron and hit a golf ball in Mabou, chances are it would fly over someone who has a CD out. Names like Rankin, MacMaster and MacIsaac — giants of the East Coast music scene — drop left and right as Smith describes his neighbours and their relatives.

Cape Breton may not be acknowledged as the thought-control centre of Canada by most Canadians, but from now on it will serve as the creative centre of the universe for one of our most original literary minds. He is leaving Westmount, but with more of Jack Bottomly stories on the way, we definitely have not heard the last of Ray Smith and his finely tuned sense of the absurd.

• 'The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins' by Ray Smith is published by Biblioasis and is available at most bookstores.

No comments: