Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Choosing His Coffin

by Austin Clarke

“We are all lost,” a preacher shouts from a car radio at a son and mother in the title story of Choosing His Coffin, a collection of 20 of Austin Clarke’s best short stories. The two are driving in search of a cemetery, in which the mother plans to buy plots for her comatose husband and, eventually, herself. The son’s internalized, half-sarcastic response: “I feel I am lost. In this Monday morning traffic, I know I am lost. My mother accepts being lost.”

One of the central ironies of Austin Clarke’s career must certainly be that he came from Barbados, 48 years ago, to a country from which, as is widely half-joked, artists often have to leave to become successful. Someone might have told him, Canada is not the place to find yourself, especially if you are a writer.

The poet George Elliott Clarke calls Austin Clarke’s stories “Horatio Alger burlesques in which striving West Indian male immigrants often achieve a middle-class lifestyle and respectability, but at the price of losing their authenticity, their ‘roots’ culture, or, if partially Americanized, their blackness.” While touching on the truth (everything in Clarke’s stories is exaggerated, theatrical), the critical tone of this summary is far too dismissive and limiting. What does it mean in Canada, where the majority of Clarke’s stories are set, to be authentic? As we see in Choosing His Coffin, Clarke’s oeuvre is exactly an exploration of that question.

“I was trying to make her see that the defence of my present predicament and the future was to be found in my ability to remember the past.” So runs the logic, in the story “The Discipline,” of a Bajan-Canadian immigrant accused of breaking his teenage son’s ribs. There is no question as to his guilt, yet Clarke engages our sympathies by showing how, faced with sterile, impersonal laws in Canada, the father is cut off from an idyllic, rural past.

In two other stories, “The Man” and “A Slow Death,” two loners – an eccentric collector and a grieving widower – are presented in portraits of doomed antisocial obsession. “A Short Drive,” which finds a Bajan-Canadian in the deep American south unknowingly in the arms of a transvestite, traces the process of a mask unveiling a mask unveiling a mask to expose a place where no one really belongs.

A comedy of courtship, “The Motor Car” details a man’s journey from Barbados to Toronto where he is undone by material greed in his quest for a Plymouth Galaxie. “If the Bough Breaks” takes us into a Toronto hair parlour to witness a comedy of bickering housewives shattered by the horror of rape. The masterful “Griff!” presents a snob so in denial of his Bajan heritage that he exercises a contorted, and ultimately grisly and sociopathic, bigotry against fellow immigrants who have not, like himself, come to Toronto via England.

These are indeed stories of people striving toward, or functioning within, the middle class. But then, so are the fictions of Alice Munro, Dennis Bock, Madeleine Thien, Mordecai Richler, Nino Ricci, and hundreds more. Canada after all is, for most, a land of immigrants. Austin Clarke’s stories turn on catastrophe – children are brutalized, spouses die, houses burn, fortunes are lost. These catastrophes often come as exactly the opposite of the “price of [lost] authenticity” suggested by George Elliott Clarke.

Austin Clarke doesn’t so easily let his characters shake off their pasts. But while his characters are black, the catastrophes are universal and human. These stories, or versions of them, could happen to just about any Canadian. What does it mean to be authentic in Canada? As Clarke shows, foremost it means to be human, and for most it means to be an immigrant. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Another irony of Clarke’s career is that, amongst the wide range of his talents – his alternately explosive and razor-sharp facility for dialogue, the joyful musicality of his prose, his deadly sense of satire, his raucous and startling plots, his hilarious characters and caricatures – at the centre of all this is his remarkable feeling for place. He is one of only a handful of writers who captures with perfect mournfulness the hollow grittiness of Toronto’s downtown streets. Conversely, like the young Mordecai Richler writing in Paris about Montreal, Clarke’s fictive remembrances of Barbados are elegiac and Elysian.

That last is a comparison too delicious. How do you find yourself in a place like Canada? There’s a question Richler could certainly expound on! After 48 years, 10 novels, seven short-story and four non-fiction collections, a Giller Prize and the Caribbean and Canadian regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, it’s also a question that remains the nub, and the rub, of Austin Clarke’s writing.