Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reader's Diary #643- Joe Welsh: Jackrabbit Street

According to the publishers at Thistledown Press, Joe Welsh's "ear for voice and his deprecating homespun portraits paradoxically intensify his loyalty to his people." Well, that seems just about apt.

With the strong accent and grammar, I was reminded once again of my grandfather. I know I tend to go on and on about the man, but since he died two years ago, his memory is with me just as strong. An awesomely funny storyteller, any time my pop spoke, without fail someone would say, "someone should be writing this stuff down." But after reading Welsh's Jackrabbit Street, I'm not so sure. While Welsh is Metis and my grandfather was a outport Newfoundlander, and while the dialects aren't really similar, the intensity is. And while I'm all for saving their stories, I'm not sure the written form captures the charm adequately. Nothing, obviously, is as good as the real thing, but an audio recording or better yet, a video would be better than a transcription. While not all that familiar with the Metis, I can only assume Welsh's "ear for voice" is as strong as they say.
So right away I go to my cupboard an' my half a bannock and lard is there, so I throw the bannock on table an' I slam the lard down an' I tell him, "That's all the bloody lard there is. How you like it if all you have to eat for Thanksgiving is gophers' head an bannock?"
Even if the voice sounds authentic, I don't think Welsh mixed it up enough. Mostly a series of anecdotes, with a few poems thrown in for good measure, Welsh does his best to recount life in the mid-1900s, mostly in and around Lebret, Saskatchewan. However, halfway through I came across a story called, "How Kokum Emily and Mussom Emily Brought Thanksgiving to Crooked Lake." It's no better or worse a tale than any other in the book, except that I was thrown off guard when suddenly the narrator starts talking about a husband. Her husband. It was only then did I realize that all these anecdotes weren't meant to be from the same individual. As a series of scenes in a play perhaps, I think strong actors would differentiate these characters better. As it was on paper, everyone seemed to talk the same-- and not just in a Metis dialect. Almost everyone seemed to have the same kind of blunt sense of humor. It was a humor I could sometimes appreciate (more on that later), but it didn't seem sufficiently varied to capture different personalities.

As for the "deprecating homespun portraits paradoxically intensify[ing] his loyalty to his people," no story captures that better than "St. Pierre and the Bandit" in which the bandit, Rocky Poisson, forces St. Pierre at gunpoint to eat his own excrement. Soon the tables are turned and St. Pierre, now in charge of the gun, forces Rocky Poisson to do the same. Finally they go get drunk and laugh the whole thing off. I'm sorry, I really found it hard to get past this tale. Forcing someone to partake in coprophagy is just not funny. It's disturbed and I don't care how many drinks you have after. Seriously sick.

The rest of the stories, thankfully, aren't twisted like that one, and some are genuinely funny. Though, as I say, it takes a long time to get past that one, and at only 64 pages, I'm not sure I did entirely. In a more serious story toward the end, a prisoner of war is also forced at gun point to do something pretty horrific to a Korean girl. At first he refuses but then his captures say they'll shoot her if he doesn't comply.

At first I thought the story was good balance to the earlier St. Pierre story. In the first, someone is forced to degrade themselves and it's not treated as a big deal. In the latter, someone is forced to degrade another and the tone is serious. However, I can't say I liked either. The latter is certainly more well-written but such an ugly story in a book that is predominately light-hearted and funny seemed out of place. In the end, it proved too difficult to get past either story enough to say I enjoyed this whole experience.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't sound like something I want to read. Thanks for the honest review.

palinode said...

I remember Joe reading the "St. Pierre and the Bandit" story to a crowd of writers back in 1989. I don't know if it even had a title at that point. Trust me when I say that Welsh reads his stuff extraordinarily well, because we were howling with laughter. The next day everyone realized exactly what they were laughing over.