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From our archives: Stuart McLean was a ‘gentle jokester’

Stuart McLean had an inimitable talent for culling humorous morsels from everyday life, making ‘The Vinyl Café’ a nation-wide success


 

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Stuart McLean gathers his papers and begins to make his way to the door of a café. As he passes, a man leans over, digging his elbows into the books splayed across his table. In this quiet Toronto hangout, the man’s voice booms, jolting sleepy patrons as they hover above steaming cups of cappuccino. “Hey, Mister McLean,” he barks, beckoning, “I’ve got something to tell you.” McLean, a 50-year-old writer and broadcaster, is unperturbed by the abrupt request. He wanders dutifully over to the stranger, ready to absorb whatever quirky tidbit is on offer.

Instead, McLean says as he returns, the man “just wanted to tell me his cousin listens to me in Montana.” The broadcaster hosts CBC Radio’s popular weekend show The Vinyl Café, a mixture of music and humorous tales. And the stranger’s interjection is routine for McLean, who gathers stories and anecdotes effortlessly, incorporating many into his program. In fact, it is his talent for culling humorous morsels from everyday life that has made the four-year-old Vinyl Café a success, and McLean a best-selling author.

McLean has racked up sales of more than 100,000 copies for three earlier books: The Morningside World of Stuart McLean (1989), a compendium of his work as a CBC Radio journalist; Welcome Home (1992), a foray into small-town Canada; and Stories from the Vinyl Café (1995), his first work of fiction and a spinoff of the radio show. McLean’s newly released fourth book, Home from the Vinyl Café (Penguin, $29.99), is another collection of stories centring on Dave, owner of a Toronto second-hand-record store, his wife, Morley, and their two children, Sam and Stephanie. McLean chronicles their course as they navigate a series of domestic tribulations ranging from cooking Christmas turkey to grappling with ramshackle cottages. The stories are clearly written, infused with homespun aphorisms, and unabashedly cheerful. They are bereft of the violence, sex and anguish that characterize much modern fiction.

“It’s who I am and what I feel comfortable with,” says McLean. “I see the good in people and in things. To me, the glass is always half full. You assume that Dave isn’t going to get shot or shoot someone or hit somebody.” McLean’s optimism is the through-line in a career that began in 1974. Born in Montreal, he found a job as a researcher on CBC Radio shortly after graduating from Sir George Williams University, now Concordia. Years making radio documentaries developed his ear for speech and his sense of place, skills that he uses to advantage in his prose.

McLean joined Morningside in 1983 and distinguished himself as a correspondent who pulled comedy from seemingly banal situations without humiliating his subjects. He was a gentle jokester whose upbeat outlook kept him open to humorous possibilities. In one segment, McLean went to the busiest phone booth in Toronto and interviewed people as they exited. This journalist fishing expedition led to interviews with a convicted bank robber and a prostitute who recalled her favorite job—posing as a closeted gay man’s girlfriend on Christmas Day. McLean, now a faculty member of Ryerson Polytechnic University’s journalism school and director of its broadcast division, says his Morningside years taught him that “everyone has a story.”

Many dub McLean Canada’s answer to American writer Garrison Keillor. While both authors share a background in radio and a love of domestic humour, McLean is not an American knockoff. McLean’s yarns spring from a Canadian tradition that dates back to the 19th century and Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker: The Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville. Published in the 1830s, Haliburton’s stories examined life in the Maritimes through the eyes of American opportunist Sam Slick. The tales, though riddled with the racial stereotypes of their day, promoted an earnest belief that actions rather than complaints would improve local life, and that earthy hard work was a chief moral good.

But unlike Stephen Leacock and W. O. Mitchell, Haliburton’s earlier-20th-century literary descendants, McLean has no political agenda in his work. “His stories are meant to entertain, not to be analytical,” says Andy Wainwright, a professor of Canadian literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “He calls into question personal traits and behaviours that people deal with in the ’90s.”

At the Vinyl Cafe, happiness is the result of individual effort. Dave, for example, works hard at being a good husband. “Anybody can get divorced,” says McLean. “It takes great imagination to stay married.” McLean himself is married, has three children and lives in downtown Toronto. Yet he diligently strives to make Dave and family distinct from his own tribe.

Many listeners and readers, however, see themselves reflected in McLean’s fictional family unit. The characters in Home from the Vinyl Café are unassuming and modest, qualities Canadians like to ascribe to themselves. They indulge in quintessentially Canadian activities, such as cottaging and snow shovelling. McLean says these Canadian ingredients are not a goal but a result of his origins. ‘When I hear that my work is ‘Canadian,’ I just go, ‘Huh?’ It’s like I’m a fish. I swim in Canadian waters. It’s just where I live.” Maybe so, but McLean’s descriptions, such as Morley recalling her father stealing snow in order to make a backyard skating rink in the mild southern Ontario climate, conjure up northern icons. They fly by as fast and unapologetically Canadian as, well, geese heading south for the winter.

From The Maclean’s Archives, a story in memory of Stuart McLean, who died Wednesday at age 68.


 
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