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Vinyl Cafe Diaries

by Stuart McLean

The lives and misadventures of Toronto record-store owner Dave, his wife Morley, and their children Stephanie and Sam are a Canadian institution both on the airwaves and in print. McLean’s style is characterized by a plainspoken clarity, essential to both his humour and his emotional payoffs that skirt, without indulging in, the sentimental.

McLean’s stories are more than just Norman Rockwellian comfort food or humorous anecdotes. He is just as comfortable plumbing the darker sides of his characters lives (although anyone expecting Canadian gothic touches or Oprah-style revelations should look elsewhere), as he demonstrates in the latest addition to the series, Vinyl Cafe Diaries. This is especially true in such stories as “Dorm Days,” which follows Stephanie’s difficult transition to university life, and “Walking Man,” an almost existential tale of Dave’s attempt to quit smoking by taking an extended walk through Ontario’s small towns and byways. McLean finds his source material in the conflicts and collusions of family and friends, rather than in manufactured hardship or extremity, an approach that resonates in the experience of his readers.

It helps that McLean has a knack for effective characterization. He is as convincing writing about Stephanie’s dorm experiences as he is in exploring Sam’s epicurean awakening. Morley’s doubts about Dave’s plans for her 40th birthday come across as plainly and honestly as Dave’s reflections on his own mortality following the death of an old friend.

McLean’s world is somewhat more restricted in Vinyl Cafe Diaries than in previous books. The stories focus exclusively on the family, and readers may miss the longer explorations of the series’ more peripheral characters. The main drawback to Vinyl Cafe Diaries, however, is the lack of McLean’s Garrison-Keillor-by-way-of-Jimmy-Stewart storytelling voice, which is only available live or by radio.