There’s a one-man show – and, possibly, a standup routine – dying to leap out of the pages of Words to Live By, the amusing memoir by William Whitehead – actor, documentary writer, and, by his own admission, the man better known as Timothy Findley’s partner of 40 years. You may well be holding a book in your hands, but what you’re experiencing is a stage performance, complete with tall tales, pauses for applause (and punch lines), scene changes, and lengthy, but not always revealing, interior monologues. That’s part of the book’s appeal but also its downfall. Some of Whitehead’s stories would no doubt be hilarious at a dinner party or book launch, or accompanied by the infectious laughter of an audience, but most fall flat on the page.
It’s a shame because Whitehead recounts a fascinating life that began in Hamilton in the 1930s and took him to Saskatchewan, where he nearly settled on a career as a scientist before the acting bug brought him back to Ontario, into the arms of Findley, whom he met at Toronto’s Yonge and Bloor intersection, and eventually to the CBC.
At its best, Words to Live By reads like a social history, not just of a (gay) man or an important literary partnership, but of the making of Canadian culture, on stage and on the airwaves. For those too young to remember, this was a time when the CBC actually produced radio dramas and fascinating documentaries that told authentic Canadian stories.
But Whitehead’s insistence on structuring the book around “stories of linguistic misunderstandings” often derails the narrative instead of serving as a thread or through-line for the book’s many milestone moments. As a result, when Whitehead wants to move from one time period to another, he is forced to fall back on such hoary transitions as “Fast forward to,” or “Now, back to.”
What remains intact is a record of Canada’s changing attitudes toward gay men over the span of one generation, as seen through Whitehead’s loving relationships with Findley and his current (non-sexual) partner, Trevor Greene. That’s not bad from a man whose real gift, in the words of Noel Coward, is a “talent to amuse,” but unfortunately it is not always enough to sustain 248 pages. Ninety minutes onstage, however…