Nos­tal­gic mem­oir a mar­vel


CATHAL Kelly re­mem­bers that an ob­ses­sion with earth-mov­ing equip­ment in­spired his eight-year-old self to start dig­ging a hole in the back­yard of the shabby two-bed­room bun­ga­low he shared with his mother and younger brother in work­ing-class Toronto.

Once started, he kept dig­ging and dig­ging, for days and weeks. He mar­velled as the colour, tex­ture and smell of lay­ers of earth changed as he bur­rowed deeper and deeper, un­til one af­ter­noon he found he no longer could climb out and waited hours un­til his mother came and res­cued him.

“I wasn’t think­ing at all,” he writes in Boy Won­ders. “It’s only in child­hood that we can have pur­pose with­out an end.”

Thus the quirky, must-read Globe and Mail colum­nist in­tro­duces us to both the boy and the won­der of a mem­oir that truly is a gem — multi-faceted, colour­ful, pol­ished, bril­liant.

A “pur­pose with­out an end” seems to ex­plain many of Kelly’s boy­hood pur­suits — jump­ing onto sub­way tracks to shock com­muters, steal­ing hood or­na­ments just be­cause, sup­ply­ing bags to glue snif­fers, shoplift­ing a porn mag­a­zine in Grade 1 in hopes of solv­ing the mys­ter­ies of sex.

Along the way we come to un­der­stand — or re­mem­ber — what it means to be a boy with bound­less pas­sion and cu­rios­ity, liv­ing en­tirely in the mo­ment with­out thought that it might end, leav­ing but an “echo of how it once felt, and a nos­tal­gia for those careless times.”

This is an odd com­ing-of-age mem­oir in that it is not a lin­ear, birth-to-death nar­ra­tive but rather won­der by topic — My Bed­room, Tele­vi­sion, Hair, Mu­sic, Lord of the Rings. There are many whys and whats, but al­most ab­sent are whos, wheres and whens.

There is no chap­ter about his fam­ily or the larger Kelly clan. Sig­nif­i­cant peo­ple just pop up in the course of ex­plain­ing other things, such as why aspir­ing writ­ers should mimic Ge­orge Or­well, or how to gel a mo­hawk hairdo.

His dad, we learn al­most by ac­ci­dent, was named Niall. He had men­tal-health is­sues that grew worse; he ended in an early grave. He drank heav­ily, ex­ploded into rages and vi­o­lence, and gave Cathal (pro­nounced caw-HALL) “full force” smacks to the head that sent him crash­ing into things.

It seems boy-Cathal ac­cepted that this is what dads do. And, on the up­side, he learned he could take a punch, which proved use­ful on play­grounds and later in back al­leys.

His dad was one of 12 sib­lings, all “peas­ants.” The fam­i­lies of­ten got to­gether to so­cial­ize — i.e. to drink heav­ily — un­til “some­one said some­thing to Frank about Noreen, which was fil­tered through Kath­leen. Frank got up­set. Sean got in­volved. Fin­nan tried to bust it up. Then the shout­ing. Then the gen­eral scrum.”

His mother ar­rived in Canada from Ire­land in 1970. A tiny, fear­less, nonon­sense woman of few words and fewer shows of af­fec­tion (she once laid out Cathal with an up­per­cut), the reader warms to her and re­al­izes that it’s her shoul­ders upon which Cathal learned to stand.

It was mom who dumped dad to raise her boys alone. It was mom who sent Cathal out to beat the snot out of boys bul­ly­ing his brother: “I want you to find them and hurt them.”

“This was fam­ily,” Kelly writes. “This is what it meant to be to­gether in some­thing.”

Which prob­a­bly is not ev­ery­one’s idea of be­ing to­gether, but so what? If it was the ex­pected, who would read it?

Boy Won­ders is ter­rific, a book you should buy, read once for the plea­sure, read again for the craft and then… give it to a 12-year-old.


Babe Ruth, seen here in 1923 when he played for the New York Yan­kees, set home run records that stood for decades and re­mains one of base­ball’s defin­ing fig­ures.

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