According to the book’s afterword, Antanas Sileika’s new memoir originated in a conversation between the author, his wife, Snaige, and ECW Press co-publisher Jack David at a bar in Windsor, Ontario, during that city’s Bookfest. “As always happened to me after two cocktails or two cups of coffee,” Sileika writes, “I started to tell stories, primarily anecdotes I found amusing. Jack held up his hand and told me to stop talking and start writing.” That glimpse serves as a perfect touchstone for the book as a whole: rooted in reality, but comfortably worn and practised.
“What you read here is what I remember in the shape I remember it,” Sileika writes of the collection, but this description doesn’t do the book justice: the memories have been vividly, deliberately shaped by a master storyteller over a lifetime of telling, to powerful and often hilarious effect. Sileika – who is the outgoing director of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto – eschews a strictly linear chronology in favour of an impressionistic approach to his own life. The Barefoot Bingo Caller takes the form of 17 essays, focused and arranged thematically. The seemingly ad hoc approach has the paradoxical effect of lending the book a powerful unity: this is a memoir with the dull bits removed, and the remaining highlights polished to a bright shine.
And what a shine. Sileika writes with a keen eye not only for detail but language, both on the page and in the various worlds he is exploring. His tone is wry and vaguely mischievous, using the detached hindsight of the non-linear format to build elements to maximum effect. In a chapter titled “The Beer Barrel Polka,” for example, Sileika documents the summer of 1970, which he spent folk dancing in the Lithuanian Sea Scout Folk Dance Ensemble and sneaking off to the wilds of Yonge Street whenever he could. Of course there are girls involved. The essay builds to a polka contest, with a colour television as first prize, but even higher stakes for our young hero. The result is a slow boil of hilarity reaching a climax that pulls the rug out from beneath both narrator and reader to touching effect.
“Town and Country” covers Sileika’s decades as a cottager on the Gibson River. It’s a tender account of finding a place in the world, and the “infinite and unstoppable” passage of time, to the moment when one needs to close up the cottage for the last time and pass it on to its next owners. “Literary types abhor sentimentality,” Sileika writes, but he finds the sweet spot where genuine sentiment moves to the forefront, while at the same time playing out the final stages of a running gag about rumours of a mystical lake “where the bass are so thick, they snap at each other’s tails” – rumours Sileika himself accidentally started years before.
Whether writing about his early experiences as a teacher, his burgeoning romance with the woman he would later marry, his political activities, his youth in Paris, or a single excursion in Toronto’s secret after-hours universe, Sileika maintains that delicate balance between sentiment and humour. It’s effective and powerful, and reading The Barefoot Bingo Caller, one understands what Jack David saw in these memories. These are stories as involving as a hushed conversation – intimate and revealing, deeply personal but open to the universal.