Sunday, July 6, 2008

Alice Munro Can Eat How Many Hamburgers? Reading In Alice Munro's Kitchen

Yesterday a friend gave me a copy of JoAnn McCaig's Reading in Alice Munro's Archive. It's a book about the process of interfacing with a writer whose intense desire for privacy once led a reporter to say of Munro's front door, "That's funny. Usually they open from the outside, too."

It's packed with a nice selection of Munro stories; it's exhaustive in its research into Munro's publishing history and general literary career.

But, as always, what I liked most about McCaig's work was its conversational tone. It was a book that was fun to read. McCaig was like a friend complaining over a fifth vodka martini, extra cold.

"I wanted to quote from a letter written by Larry Moorehead. She said No. Why? No answer."

"Who's Larry Moorehead?"

"He owns a bakery in St. Thomas."

"Why would you want to quote from a letter written by a baker?"

"Because the butcher and the candlestick maker are both married now."

By far the best part of McCaig's work was the paragraph where she described showing up at an eating contest in which Munro was competing. It was the annual Friends of George picnic, held in North York's G. Ross Lord Park, and Munro had entered herself in two events: the hamburger eating contest, and the human lawnmower race. Maybe what interested me was the personal connection that I had to the story. My grandfather and his friends started the FOG picnic about twenty-five years ago. They were jogging buddies who got together to remember a runner named George Goodman. (George had collapsed and died one morning near the JCC at the corner of Bathurst and Spadina after jogging up to Dupont.) The picnic raised money to send his kids to camp (White Pine) and university (UofT).

I think that Alice came for the free food. I remember everyone being Jewish, but people were allowed to bring guests. She was accepted because she was a friendly and generous person. I remember that she once gave me a page from one of her books.

Back to the story:

McCaig watched from behind a tree as Munro, seated at a picnic table, raced against six men in a frantic chewing spree that would last exactly five minutes. This was probably the "main event" of the FOG picnic. This was what you looked forward to for fifty-one weeks. Each contestant was presented with twenty eight-ounce burgers--each with its own bun. Condiments were a personal choice, with Munro going for pickles, onions, and relish. Most just wanted plain meat.

Sources tell me that McCaig's book occasioned a kind of bidding war. Editors read the eating contest chapter, and they were frothing at the opportunity to print the thing. Grease and charred beef streaking Munro's face, the cover would sell a hundred thousand copies.

Munro did not win the competition. She downed eight burgers; the winner polished off eleven.

"Dad," I said, "couldn't you have let her win?"

"After what she wrote about me in Runaway?"

So that's just an example of the kind of gap that readers of Canadian literature have to overcome when considering their favourite authors. We don't know much about these people, and, often, their work isn't enough to forge strong connections. We need to see them at their happiest, at their most unguarded--downing AAA beef cooked on a rusty charcoal-burning park grill.

So McCaig did a good thing. Even if her book's missing a few letters, well, at least we know the next time that we're invited to Alice's for a barbecue, it's sesame seed buns or nothing.


Margo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margo said...

I don't know, David. Didn't you feel like McCaig's book left you waiting for a punch line that never appears? What's the point of publishing a book about your work in someone's archive if you aren't granted the permission to actually publish what you found in the archive? It's all "here's my exhaustive reasearch" without presenting any of that exhaustive research for appraisal. She should have either turned it into a completely different book (ie. peronsal account of the difficulties of working in archives) or said to hell with it. One of these days I want to compare the published version to the diss.

Funny post though.

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