Hugh Garner

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Doug Fetherling

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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, most of them arising from his fondness for drink, which he says the navy instilled in him…. But one has the feeling throughout that there is much more he cannot or won't remember.

What is more disturbing, however, is that sometimes bitterness and venom spill from his pen and blot out whatever it was that actually happened. He writes about being interned during the war with so many veiled references and so much hatred that we know the place was hell. But that's all we know. Was there torture? Were there beatings? All Garner says of the guards is, "I hope God killed them all with cancer." The memories are obviously too painful to be given in detail, and perhaps a good deal of his life has not ripened enough yet for dispassionate retelling.

That what he really feels as a writer is also too private must be the reason why he speaks only of "this writing caper."… What he does tell, however, he tells with complete honesty; he has practically no égoisme dans la...

(This entire section contains 1021 words.)

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fraternité, only this running paradox about his professionalism as a writer. He points out several times, for instance, how clean his manuscripts are, in contrast with those of others he names and puts down for it. Yet One Damn Thing After Another is riddled with mistakes of fact and spelling as well as repetition. (pp. 41, 43)

The only time this tactic works at all well (and the only time it is defensible, because the material is nowhere else between covers) is with a series of three articles done in 1959 for the Star Weekly about returning to the battlefields of Spain…. This is good history, journalism and travel writing combined, though the ending suffers from appearing to have been stuck on carelessly.

At the end of the book, in the long segment about having sold reprint rights to this and a movie option on that, Garner does two curious things. First, he talks about how the writing of One Damn Thing After Another came about and progressed (it began as a file for McGraw-Hill's promotion department). Then he conducts an imaginary interview with himself in order to work in, before closing, anything he might have forgotten to say. These are fairly avant-garde things to do and, like many avant-garde things in writing, strangely boyish. But this is fitting conclusion to the work as a whole, since throughout Garner has been rather adolescent. He has been bitter and pouting, taking great offense at old affronts others would have dismissed years ago, and he has bubbled like the kids on television with no cavities about small and medium-sized successes which other writers of his reputation would have been embarrassed to put forward. (p. 43)

"In my sixtieth year," Garner writes, "I sometimes paused and wondered how I'd ever survived …" This is standard sentiment for survivors like Garner and particularly for those who are loners. Then he goes on and on about rights and permissions, editors' lunches, petty kindnesses and magnanimous insults and the apparent glee with which he barges into publishing houses demanding to see the president. Suddenly, the cumulative effect hitting you like delayed action vodka, it becomes clear. Hugh Garner, to some very real and very large extent not imagined before, has written eight novels, four books of stories and all the rest, including this autobiographical hodgepodge, because writing is the only surcease for loneliness, and loneliness simple and painful is what his life story has really been about. (p. 44)

Doug Fetherling, "Memoirs of a Famous Survivor," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Night), November, 1973, pp. 40-4.


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