Writings / Reviews

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Big Town: A Novel of Africville

by Stephens Gerard Malone
Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing, 2011
224 pp. $19

“Breathless Homicidal Slime Mutants”: The Art of the Paperback

by Steven Brower
Universe, 2010
304 pp. $30

In 1994, under the pseudonym of “Laura Fairburn,” Stephens Gerard Malone authored a novel, Endless Bay, that was, as I recall, a Gothic tale involving a Native youth and a white lady.  It was also an appalling mess of stereotypes.

Malone’s fourth novel, Big Town: A Novel of Africville, is another Gothic tale of folks that happen to be of different races – black and white (and are sometimes black-and-white in characterization), but it is definitely superior to Endless Bay. Here, Malone’s hero is a white youth, Early Okander, who, brain-damaged as a fetus, is kind to others, whether it’s his disgustingly abusive father, or a rapist sailor, or a rapacious slut, or whether it’s his friends, an Africville kid, Toby Daye, and a white neighbour girl, Chub. One feels sorry for Okander who, as an idiot, is as inoffensive as a saint, but, like a saint, is often offensively martyred.

The setting is the early 1960s, and the sun is setting – so to speak – on Africville, the Africadian village in North End Halifax, situated on the south shore of Bedford Basin, at the Narrows.  Although the subtitle says Big Town is about Africville, it ain’t.  Instead, it’s about three misfits – a black, a brunette, and a boob. Toby hates being black; Chub dislikes being a girl; Early is brutalized by his pops and bedded by adults who exploit his doltish mentality.  The pals are placed in Africville, but they belong to Anywhere, U.S.A.

Indeed, Africville is simply a place lawless enough for random gamblin’, bootleggin’, and killin,’ but “Coloured” enough to offer a church with mighty fine singing. Even after the bulldozing of homes begins, Africville isn’t a village, but just a clutch of shacks housing amiable Negroes alongside white trailer trash. Indeed, Big Town is not so much Africville as it is Catfish Row (Porgy & Bess) or Oz, though, here, Early is the brainless Scarecrow, Toby is the cowardly Lion, and Chub is the loveless Tin Man.

Malone captures well Haligonian lingo (part-Brit, part-Yank, part-Africadian), and his details of place and era ring true.  However, the novel isn’t about Africville Relocation; it’s about socio-economic dislocation. One plot element involves an elderly black fan of the real-life Portia White. The gent believes that, if he and other Africvillers can entice the great contralto to give a concert in Africville, the community will be saved. He writes to her, but her only reply is an autographed photo.

Yes, Malone is granted liberties. But this balderdash is dastardly. How could that classy lady, also my great aunt, who was living in Toronto and dying from cancer, prevent Halifax from demolishing Africville? It’s awful fiction to pretend otherwise….

Steven Brower’s “Breathless Homicidal Slime Mutants”: The Art of the Paperback could be dismissed as a triumph of marketing. It’s another collection of U.S. paperback book covers, assembled mainly from the 1930s-1960s, reproduced in full-colour, that delivers instant gaudy, lurid, visual pleasure. However, Brower’s well-illustrated and short introduction, made even shorter by the teensy-weensy print, is the best, brief history of printing and publishing that I’ve ever read.  By itself, it’s worth the price of the book.

Brower reminds us that, in it first magical appearance in late medieval, illiterate, witch-burning Europe, the printed Bible seemed the work of the devil. Gradually, though, thanks to war and theft, publishing technology spread, literacy increased, and the Bible was no longer the property of kings and clerics. In essence, printing and publishing – literature en masse creates societies ripe for mass mobilization – either for democracy or for despots.

When the paperback bestseller appears in the 1930s, the success of this pulp fiction confirmed the existence of a large market, of millions of readers, hungry for literature of all sorts, from classics and scripture to thrillers and romances. Even though hardcover book readership rises and falls, the paperback remains popular because it remains relatively cheap and portable – and the cover art is stunning. Yep:  Everything from Sci-Fi to Shakespeare just looks better when prefaced by vivid, eye-catching graphics.


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