Hugh Garner

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Doug Fetherling

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

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 letter-to-the-editor in the form of a novel. (pp. 60-1)

By now, people who care for Garner's work know who they are and those who don't care for it know that they don't and why. This, like all his other books, is a work of realism but not necessarily a realistic book. The writing is of a higher grade than that of the detective novels he's been publishing recently…. The real failure of the book, even within the province Garner has established for himself, is that the author deals scathingly and at length with people he does not understand. That's not to say that, if he did comprehend, he would treat them any differently or that he should treat them differently. It's only to say that he tries in The Intruders, as in most of his work, to paint a picture through masses of tiny detail but that, in this case, much of the detail is all wrong.

Garner is trying to show that, despite all its protestations to the contrary, Toronto is actually the most class-ridden city on the planet, with the possible exception of Bombay…. The way he shows this is not very subtle. He simply lashes out at all the middle class types and their institutions, as though such people know that others exist, as though they can be shocked into remembering. Alas, such is not the case in actuality. Toronto looks upon those who aren't middle class Torontonians not as persons apart but as performers hired to entertain them. Attacks always end in frustration, with the villains picking up the heroes' options for another thirteen weeks.

Where Garner really falls down is in dealing with the local political and cultural cabals. The way in which he does so is curious. At times he seems on the verge of turning the book into a roman à clef, but just as often he will use the names of actual public personalities. (pp. 61-2)

The Intruders is a grand idea for a Hugh Garner novel but doesn't quite live up to what it promises. The problem is simply that Garner knows more about one side of the tracks than the other. (p. 62)

Doug Fetherling, "Hugh Garner in Trendy Cabbagetown," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Night), July-August, 1976, pp. 60-2.

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