This month, William Morrow US is re-releasing my comic novel, Playing House, first published in 2003 and shortlisted for the Leacock Memorial Medal for Humor. The protagonist, Frannie, is an ex-pat Canadian living in New York who finds herself accidentally pregnant; she ultimately returns to the land of free healthcare, and then to the much curiouser (and more beautiful and funnier) landscape of Cape Breton.
Here’s one of two excerpts I want to toss up:
“The Apple of My Eye”
“When one lives in New York, all other cities are insubstantial by comparison; no matter how fine they are, how lively and inspiring, they invariably become small, plodding, too-eager burgs in the eyes of the young they’ve so carefully tended, who’ve fled them. Where am I, one asks, upon disembarking from an airplane that lifted off at La Guardia. Not New York? Why, then I must be above the treeline! Help, help!
Having lived in Manhattan for nine years, I was, like most New Yorkers, in the habit of darting in and out of other places with anxious swiftness, as if afraid to stay too long and perish from ennui. Thus I leaped into the back of a cab at Pearson International Airport in Toronto and barked at the driver: ‘downtown, northwest corner of College and Yonge.’ Vite, vite. No point going to Mum’s first. All I had with me was a shoulder bag. I’d do this free medical checkup, stay the weekend, and then off. I had promised The Editor I’d be back on Tuesday to tackle the Annie Dillard essay on pond life and the meaning of God.
“Do you come from Toronto?” the cabdriver asked. He was a good-looking man, dark and fine-featured, with relaxed, intelligent eyes. He was wearing a baseball cap and a pair of earmuffs, with a plaid scarf wound around his neck. It wasn’t that cold.
“I suppose I’m from Toronto. I live in New York, now.”
“Aha! New York!” He gave out a deep bark of a laugh. “I lived in New York also. When I first came to North America, I drove a taxi there.” He smiled into his rearview.
“Well, that must have been hellish driving,” I said, returning his smile.
He laughed again. “Listen to me, it was like a bad dream, like the dream you have of being in front of the class room.” He spoke fluent English, but it was oddly inflected, and English vocabulary with a Franco-African rhythm, so that I had to lean forward to catch what he said.
“Where did you come from,” I asked.
“Burundi. The Congo. I was a doctor.”
“How did you wind up in Toronto?”
“Oh, by accident. Some friends asked me to come up with them from New York, in a car. For a holiday. I thought we were going to Montreal. I had never heard of Toronto. Only Montreal. I thought Quebec was the capital of Canada. We crossed at Buffalo, but then I couldn’t get back to America. I didn’t have the right papers. Alors, je suis reste ici. Do you speak French?”
“Un peu,” I offered, noncommittally. I took French for years and years, of course. Je suis, tu es, il est. Ou est le bar? Not much use for it in Manhattan. We gunned it down Highway 427 along the city’s western flank, in a race for our lives with thousands of other cars all hurtling along at 80 mph for no particular reason. The only place more frightening to drive is Texas, in my experience, but that is because Texans are macho, whereas Torontonians are repressed, and just work out their competitive rage on the road.
I stared out the window at the slate-gray expanse of Lake Ontario. Every time I came home, there were more and more glass condo towers steepling upward along its shore, being bought up, my mother said, by wealthy folk from Russia and Hong Kong who were hastily transferring their money from less congenial homelands.
Toronto is a city filed with accidental citizens. They come from everywhere, from Argentina, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, but rarely because they have an explicit vision of the place; they aren’t drawn by mythic images of riches and glamour like the immigrants arriving at the airports and harbours of New York. They are exiled, for the most part, and have thrown darts at a map of the world. Arriving, astonished by the cold, bewildered by hockey and our Nordic reserve, they nonetheless build their cities within our city: Chinatown, Little India, Portugal town. Our city becomes a new city surprised by itself, double-taking at the profusion of culture: Brazilian dance clubs, Indian cricket matches, Polish delis, Chinese newspapers, Ecuadorian snack stands, somber Italian Easter parades.
It’s wonderfully spiced, this city, but there’s no point arguing that in the New York corridors of The Pithy Review. Toronto is Canada. Canada? Bland. Clean. Nice. Boring. Polite. Lots of weather. Weather and hockey players. Not much else up there. “Canada has, what, four million people?” a friend of mine at the New York Times once asked me. “No, it’s over thirty million.” So, what’s the difference? None of them are us. Blandnicecleanboringpolite. Lots of weather. Cold up there, huh?
My loyalties were awkwardly divided. I was besotted with New York. I felt like a courtier at Versailles who periodically toured the provinces to take the air and find myself encircled by the curious: what news of the king? I walked among my countrymen with a cloak of unimpeachable authority, possessing greater enlightenment, effortless superiority, being a Sneetch with a star etched upon my belly.
On the other hand, what’s bred in the bone, as Robertson Davies pointed out. He was a novelist. Canadian.”