There is an art to telling a simple story. Some people cannot do it. They need to tell you all about the inner lives of their characters, even the aspects that have nothing to do with the story; they must describe the setting down to the smallest drop of dew on a leaf in a forest that none of the characters ever enter; and they must make absolutely sure that you appreciate the brilliance of the them, the author, as much as you appreciate their creation. But it is usually the simplest stories that attract me the most, which is why I was so happy to read Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean.
For almost twenty years now, McLean, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, has been telling stories on his CBC radio show, the Vinyl Cafe. And for many of those years, I have been listening. The highlight of any episode is the “Dave and Morley Story”, though these days the stories are just as likely to be about one of their children – university student Stephanie or preteen Sam – or neighbours. They are humourous stories, particularly the ones focused on Dave (an enthusiastic record store owner who has never encountered a sticky situation he could not make infinitely worse), but they are so fondly and tenderly told that I more often than not find myself tearing up, sometimes even as I am laughing.
I love all the characters in Dave and Morley’s world and I love how their world is recognizable but also just a little bit different, a little bit nicer and warmer. Nothing is perfect but everything is comfortable. McLean is nostalgic but it is just the right level of nostalgia: for every story Dave recounts about his youth, there is a corresponding eye-roll from one of his children, wondering why dad has to tell that story again for the hundredth time:
Dave wasn’t fussed by that. He knew he had told them before. He knew what he was doing. You have to tell stories over and over. It is the creation of myth. The only road to immortality.
It was the “road to immortality” stories in this collection that made me tear up. For every screwball sketch about one of Dave’s antics (getting stuck on a treadmill, riding a bicycle on top of a moving car, finding himself trapped in the sewers, being mistaken for a patient when visiting a friend in the hospital) there was another story about memories and traditions being passed on to the next generation. I cried over “Fish Head”, which does not seem a promising name for an emotional story but was, in the end, about Dave remembering his father and passing that memory on to Sam. “Rosemary Honey” also got to me, a story about Dave and Morley’s ninety-year old neighbour Eugene. Eugene longs to taste rosemary honey again, a flavour he remembers well from his Italian childhood, and enlists Sam and Sam’s friend Murphy to track the bees who congregate around his rosemary bushes back to their home. And by the end of the book, exhausted by all the belly laughs and blinked backed tears from the previous stories, I had no energy left to withstand the final story, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, about the death of the family dog. I cried when I first heard that story on the radio and I cried again reading it. But they were good, healthy tears and I finished the book happy.