Cabbagetown Diary: A Documentary by Juan Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My favourite book of the year. I loved it.
This is the best book I’ve ever read about Toronto. The author takes you there, to the Cabbagetown slum of 1968 and describes the landmarks of the time so well it’s like you’re there. Picture Yorkville as the author describes it:
“Yorkville Avenue. Two blocks of discotheques with the music blaring out onto the street; sidewalk coffee houses where you can watch people who watch you as you drink a fifty-cent coffee; art galleries full of modern painting that looks like the stuff we did in grade one; a poster store where my friend George got his posters; and about half a million people and cars moving up and down like a permanently flowing river.”
A lot of books have been compared to Catcher in the Rye and to me this one is the closest. The short vignettes, the sense of humour. This to me is what a first book can be. Too often I feel Canadian authors get too swept up in their own lives when writing their first book. I was young, I was depressed, I took drugs, the end. This book isn’t all about the author. A part of it is but it’s also his life, his humour, his friends, and the city.
Some passages still ring true today:
“But just think of all those joes that work in offices. They live in some stupid suburb ten miles out of the city. They have to get up at six in the morning, drink an instant breakfast, kiss wives whose faces are covered in beauty cream so you can’t even see them, run like hell so they don’t miss the bus, and spend an hour on it with about ten thousand other joes all crammed in like so many sardines in a can, fight their way into a subway car, get their feet stepped on about twenty time, and all that so that they can arrive thirty seconds late for work and have the boss give them a dirty look and write their name on a piece of paper.”
I’ve often thought of these self-obsessed pretentious first novels that it’s like depressing fish in a barrel. When you add in the humour, the work can really shine:
“Mrs. Waddling’s caught a cold and every time she blows her nose she reminds me more than ever of a duck. Honk. Honk. She better not leave the city in duck-hunting season or they’ll get her for sure.”
On the St Charles Tavern:
“I went in there one day with a friend. It’s dimly lit and except for the perfume you’d think you were walking into a straight bar. Then, as your eyes get used to the light you see that there’s nothing but guys in the place. Hundreds of them. They look you up and down as you walk towards the end trying to find a seat, and you realize what a broad in a miniskirt feels like on a windy day.”
An elephant in the Riverdale Zoo:
“He’s covered in shit and dirt and he looks about as happy as a hungry Jew with nothing but pork to eat in the house.”
“We walk past a baboon who’s picking his ass for fleas and throwing them at the spectators. Each time he does it, he smiles, his top lip lifting up a foot, exposing buck teeth that would make Jake jealous. Some little kid throws a stick at him and he picks it up, looks at it, then throws it back at him, hitting the kid’s mother. The kid laughs and the baboon smiles. It’s obvious that they’re in on this together. It’s probably the baboon that thought up the whole idea cause the kid doesn’t look too smart.”
Yes there is some anti-Semitism and racism but it seems casual to me and I wasn’t there in 1968 to gauge the mood of the populace so I don’t know how commonplace it was. I feel I can’t judge.
There’s so many great scenes in the book, the author going for a drink in a rowdy tavern, seeing hippies on the street, walking in Allen Gardens.
Loved this book. For me required reading for those living in the city.
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