Garner, Hugh 1913–1979
Garner was a Canadian novelist, short story writer, and journalist. Urban life of the lower-middle classes is the background for such novels as Cabbagetown and The Silence on the Shore. His memoirs, One Damn Thing after Another, although flawed, do throw an interesting slant on his experiences and feelings as a proletarian writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
Claude T. Bissell
[A] realistic novel that makes use of an accumulation of small, precise detail and concentrates on the plight of the little man is Hugh Garner's Storm Below. It is the account of the last four days of the voyage of a Canadian corvette, part of the escort force of a convoy proceeding from Londonderry to Newfoundland during the early spring of 1943. Although this is a war novel, Mr. Garner does not look outward to the big sensational facts of the conflict…. Rather, Mr. Garner wants to reveal to us the tiny, but intricate world of the corvette. To this end, he gives us an abundance of technical description and, more to the point, a full gallery of human portraits, embracing almost every naval rank and a wide assortment of Canadian types. In order to give movement and depth to what might have been an extended exercise in description, he has, first of all, devised a central situation that reaches out and touches the life of the entire ship. A young ordinary seaman is accidentally killed, and the captain decides to set aside the tradition of the sea and to keep the body on board for burial at St. Johns. The decision is an unfortunate one: ancient superstitions are aroused; the esprit de corps of the crew is endangered; and conflicts and antipathies long latent are brought with naked ugliness into the open. These conflicts and antipathies are not merely personal; they are entangled (here we have the second means of enriching the material) with...
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Hugh Garner has often been praised for his good heart when it is really his good ear and sharp eye that deserve our admiration. It is no use to praise him for his compassion because it is a matter of grace whether a writer has it or not, and a matter of cultural conditioning whether a reader values it or not. But a good ear for dialogue, speech rhythms, and local semantic nuances cannot be brushed aside as easily as mere goodness of heart.
The way a novelist hears words and uses them, has to do with all the complex problems of language, and even of culture. Speech is a form of action, and in the area of dialogue—which is action between characters—Garner stands out among his Canadian contemporaries. (p. 72)
Garner also makes a completely selfconscious and natural use of local place names, brand names and celebrity names. Any Canadian reader will easily recognize, scattered through Garner's pages, his own favourite beer, political party and TV show; he'll even find his most familiar moral dilemmas. And if anyone is still searching for that elusive now-you-have-it-now-you-don't Canadian identity he need search no further. Canada may claim two or more identities, but Garner conveys at least one of them through the conversations, attitudes and secrets of the characters who inhabit his small town. He is also the only writer I know of who has managed to capture what E. K. Brown called the mysterious and obnoxious quality...
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[Garner] has found the right title: One Damn Thing After Another; for [he] has spent his years stumbling day-to-day, like the rest of us, through the personal and public hells that make up most ordinary lives. The title also says something about the way in which the book has been put together….
Aside from a frequent overlapping of subject matter, the thread that links his work … is a belief in the old freelancer's maxim, "Waste Nothing." While his stories and to a lesser extent his novels are spare in style, they are rich in small geographical and historical details that seem relevant because they help to create moods. His journalism is likewise littered with eccentric information (though often for its own sake) and tends as well to be repetitious. To the extent, then, that an autobiography should be the distillation of a whole career, this one serves its purpose: as he has wavered always between cheap work and good writing, as though unable to find his right level, so he does in this book, as though unable to decide if his past has been worth the trouble. Little here has been wasted and much has been included that should have been forgotten; and so much from both categories is needlessly repeated that The Same Damn Things Again and Again would have been an apt title, too.
Garner has written well here, but only in patches, and these invariably are the most revealing of his personality. There is a chunk about his childhood which in a few thousand words puts that period in sharper focus than the whole of the novel Cabbagetown. (p. 40)
A great deal of One Damn Thing After Another is taken up with his life as a salesman of what he has written rather than as creator of it…. He writes hardly at all about himself in artistic terms except to call himself a proletarian, which I suppose he still is, and an anti-intellectual, which he is in the usual but not literal sense. Most of the remarks about his contemporaries are slurs or simple unopinionated anecdotes…. Anti-intellectual means dummy, which Garner never has been. He's just an intellectual misanthrope, which makes him fresh and rather appealing.
He has always been first of all a storyteller, in the simple sense, but in this book his own story is none too well related. The work contains all the things for which memoirs are enjoyable but not in the proper combinations or strengths. As for personal anecdotes, there are many good ones,...
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The title—One Damn Thing after Another—says a great deal about the shape of the book, for, compared with Garner's novels and stories, it is unexpectedly loose and rambling. At first the apparent formlessness disconcerts one, but in one way it is a very natural way to write a book of memoirs, the thoughts and recollections put down as they come into the mind. It is, indeed, so much like a man talking that, as one reads, Garner's gravelly voice seems to sound in the ear and his compact cocky figure to take shape before the mind's eye.
One of the good things about this approach, from the view-point of any writer who will follow with a more formal biography of Garner, is the fact that he gives abundant detail on his publication record, even down to what happened to individual short stories. Another is that when he has written a good magazine piece about an episode in his life, Garner resurrects it instead of rewriting the incident from a later and vaguer perspective. (pp. 95-6)
An interesting aspect of Garner's present attitude is his retreat from the political engagement which led him to Spain; it is not the same thing as a repudiation of his past. (p. 96)
So here is Garner, warts and all, with no attempt to hide the bouts of drinking that alternate with long periods of severe and sober work …, with no attempt either to mitigate his vanity or to beautify his occasional fits of loud...
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Hugh Garner's 1950 novel, Cabbagetown, his second book, has dominated his reputation. It was a straight-forward naturalistic story of a young man's progress, away from poverty and toward radicalism, in the 1930s….
That Garner almost always writes about the present, that he writes about a social sensibility rather than a geographic or political stance, that half of his books have been published in the 1970s—all these facts run contrary to the accepted view that Garner has never quite managed to dispel. An important aspect of his new novel, The Intruders, is that he seems to say, "Oh, what the hell, there's no use arguing. I'll give them what they want." On the surface of it, The Intruders is a sort of Cabbagetown Revisited. (p. 60)
[In] The Intruders, he surveys what has become of the neighbourhood since his days there.
In the 1970s, TV unit managers, stained-glass artists, lawyers, CBC story editors, and other marginal types have purchased old Cabbagetown slums and sandblasted them, installing skylights and uncomfortable furniture. These are the people and the atmosphere Garner is attacking. Since Garner delights in making the middle class nervous, it's not illogical that he should let himself go and have some fun. And this he does. The Intruders at times harks back to the lesser works of Upton Sinclair. It is only slightly more a work of fiction than it is a...
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Garner is a comfortable writer. Invariably he tells a story that has both a beginning and an end and he uses a style that, while colourful, is devoid of artifice and pretentiousness. Often there is a narrator who speaks with a voice crackling with hard-earned experience. He is a regular guy, one who knows the way of the world. He may be soaked in cynicism and bitterness, nevertheless he is full of compassion for his fellow sufferers. Years ago he would have been in the thick of the story; now he is content to be a voyeur, watching as bullies and snobs get what's coming to them and the meek, bespectacled little guy over in the corner emerges as a hero.
Garner's world, which is almost exclusively...
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Writing a police procedural [Death in Don Mills] had its advantages as it allowed Garner to vent his authoritarian and oft-reactionary views on just about everything through the thoughts of his chief character.
The disadvantages, however, are that Garner's indulgences and interjections work to the detriment of his thriller and result in an overly long flaccid book, which too often strays from the central plot and resulted in a remarkably unthrilling book.
Far more insidious, however, than his frequent editorials are some of Garner's obvious assumptions. Throughout the book, Inspector McDumont commits some questionable and other plainly illegal acts, such as intimidation and...
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