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.