HOLT UNCENSORED #72
by Pat Holt
Friday, July 2, 1999:
WAYNE JOHNSTON AND 'THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS'
JOE MCGINNIS NAMES THE MERGED PUBLISHER
HOW THE INTERNET CHANGES LIVES
WAYNE JOHNSTON AND 'THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS'
Wayne Johnston arrives for his first interview in San Francisco already exhausted. His wife is still at the airport waiting for their luggage, and he mumbles something about racing across the Portland, Oregon terminal when United suddenly cancelled mumble mumble, and lucky for him there was an American mumble mumble, and here he is.
These mumbles are so endearing. Perhaps because I've just read Wayne's thoroughly absorbing can't-put-it-down and delectably lengthy novel, THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS (Doubleday; 562 pages; $24.95), I hear the mumbles as signs of pure genius inside Wayne's stubble-cheeked and weary-eyed head.
You'll see what I mean when you meet Wayne's protagonist, Joe Smallwood, the first of 13 children in an impoverished Irish-Catholic family in the Newfoundland harbor town of St. John's. You wouldn't think Joe's suffering from malnutrition (of course, by age 20 he still weighs only 75 pounds) because of his incredible pluck.
People try to make fun of Joe and of the seemingly primitive state of Newfoundland at the same time. As a snooty teacher from England says, "The worst of our lot comes over here, inbreeds for several hundred years and the end-product is a hundred thousand Newfoundlanders with Smallwood at the bottom of the barrel."
"And you as my teacher, sir," says Joe in his not-so-puny way.
Johnston subtly injects an unexpectedly playful humor inserting excerpts from an imagined book called "Fielding's Condensed History of Newfoundland," written by a ferociously independent woman who taunts and tantalizes Joe throughout the novel.
The book reflects the kind of revisionist history that emerges after a great and gripping independence movement, so it challenges earlier historians, recasts important events and suggests that poems once tossed out as "curious" may now be seen as Chauceresque. For example:
"The aire in Newfoundland unwholesome is, not goode, One cannot goe outside without a hoode."
Such snippets both satirize the form of national literature and fill in gaps of Newfoundland's history as Joe grows up to become a journalist, a socialist and a labor organizer. With his gumption, his perserverence and his obstinance, Joe at one point walks the 700-mile railway track that crosses the expanse of Newfoundland to convince sectionmen living in shacks a mile apart to vote for the union.
Of course, as he's told by at least one sectionman's wife along the way, "There's not enough of you to bait a hook with, sir." Not only is Joe's malnourished frame barely able to survive this huge adventure, he also assigns himself the "epic task" of reading Newfoundland history by wearing a shoulder harness that hangs the suitcase outstretched flat on his chest, the book lying open on it in front of him. It is in this way that Joe discovers "the old lost land" of his birthright, tranforming it for himself, step by step, into "the new found land" that one day will be his destiny.
If you think you've seen enough of Newfoundland through Annie Proulx's eyes or enough of raging alcoholic fathers in Irish Catholic families from Frank McCourt's eyes, wait, wait, wait, wait: Because Wayne Johnston grew up in Newfoundland under similar circumstances as his protagonist, he writes with a Dickensian love for character and an unabashed love for strange-but-ordinary episodes that strikes a nerve in the American (U.S.) reader.
For Joe Smallwood is the individual standing up for himself, the heretic bucking the tide of "home country" (England) patriotism, the down-and-outer destined for greatness who sees past an unforgiving landscape and bone-numbing cold to the soul of a country and its struggling, heartfelt, plundered and struggling inhabitants.
"This is not an island, I told myself, but a landlocked country," Joe thinks, "hemmed in and cored by wilderness, and it is through this core that we are passing now, the unfoundland that will make us great someday." Of course, few agree with him. "They should have called it Old Lost Land, not Newfoundland," laments his father.
But soon Joe becomes a walking mirror of Newfoundland itself: seemingly unworthy, self-sabotaging, possibly handsome but dismissed by onlookers as cold and negligible, never quite up to snuff, very much what they call in St. John's "the scruff" (people living in poverty), compared to "the quality" (the rich).
Suspense builds as Joe and the irrepressible Fielding haul themselves up from obscurity to launch a new era for Newfoundland (for better and worse), and the great surprise is that most of it, though fictionalized, is true. "Newfoundland will be one of the great small nations of the earth, a self-governing, self-supporting, self-defending, self-reliant nation," Joe Smallwood tells unbelieving Newfoundlander friends early on, "and I will be prime minister of Newfoundland."
I give this part away (actually it's in the author's prefatory note up front) because Wayne Johnston started out as a journalist at 19 and once met the real Joe Smallwood. The idea of writing about Newfoundland's first premier did not take shape until Johnston had left the country and written four other novels, all very popular in Canada but none published in the United States.
"I left because I couldn't write about the island while I was there," he says. "Life was too immediate. I was too inundated by the place and its details. I'd write about something and see it when I walked across the street the next day."
Talk of Newfoundland (he pronounces every syllable, never skimming across the word to say "Newfundlnd," as his interviewers in the United States do) revives Wayne as he describes the "benign homesickness" he says has become a kind of fuel for writing about the island.
But no wonder he's tired. A month or so ago, Doubleday shrewdly brought the author to the United States to meet booksellers who liked the book and talk to them about the best way to promote a hugely successful writer who is still an unknown in this country.
The title helps - it welcomes and intrigues, Wayne believes, and "it gives you a sense of the nostalgia Newfoundlanders have felt for the possibilities of the island, and that they still have for the future. Joe is always searching for something commensurate with the greatness of the land itself, but he can't find it, and it's driving him mad.
"Newfoundland is that kind of place. It makes you want to live up to the landscape, but on the other hand it offers you no resources to do so. There's always this constant yearning that at least for my part helped me to start writing."
"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" is not a great novel - comparisons to Charles Dickens shouldn't be taken too far - but it is an engrossing story, beautifully written, sometimes impossible to put down. It's the kind of book you want to give to five or six friends at once because it reminds us how rare it is to be so completely absorbed in a story, how a midrange book like this so easily transports us to another world and most of all, what a privilege it is, for those of us in the book industry, to assist in the process of spreading the word.
And once again, thanks to independent bookstores for finding this book first. If you want to order it online, email Stacey's in San Francisco firstname.lastname@example.org, where the staff is in love with it, too.
JOE MCGINNISS NAMES THE MERGED PUBLISHER
Mention was made in the last issue (#71) about the new consolidation of publishing operations at Time Warner and Little Brown. Now our new friend, author Joe McGinniss (who says Little, Brown dropped plans to promote his book, "Miracle at Cristel de Sangro," only a few weeks after publication), says he's heard from good sources that the two publishers will officially merge and adopt a new umbrella name.
"The name for the combined new entity will be chosen by all the subsidiary names being written on separate pieces of paper and tossed into a hat. The first two picked will combine to form the name of the new company.
"Personally, I'm kind of partial to 'Brown Pocket' books, but if they went with Simon Warner, they could easily change that to 'Silas Marner' which could give kind of a nice resonance to the whole operation, the point of which is to create an entity big enough so it can fight back when it pays big bucks to Barnes & Noble for a placement promotion and Barnes & Noble fails to execute." Thank you, Joe.
HOW THE INTERNET CHANGES LIVES
If you haven't seen Kenneth Smith's story of the way his life changed completely by Internet shopping - with particular reference to book buying - take a gander at http://www.inman.com/InmanStories.asp?ID=14293&catType=R .
The article has appeared online from Today's Real Estate News to CBS Newswatch because Smith, who found himself abandoning one store after another to shop online, identifies himself as a "typical consumer."
He talks about the "easy" and "subtle" ways he has used the Internet to buy a new car, computer goods, a complicated series of airline tickets for his 80-year-old mother (he sat at a computer right next to his travel agent and did a better job), books, news (of course he's stopped reading newspapers) and very soon, he says, a new home.
He notes that CompUSA, whose stores he used to visit, "is getting hammered by online vendors such as Dell and Gateway and may soon go the way of Egghead, Computer City, Good Guys, Incredible Universe and others that either cut their inventory (and stores) to expand on the Web or went under.
So, too, he feels, the book business. "I enjoy browsing bookstores, especially the small independents with specialty collections, but these are mostly gone. [His home town] has several Borders and Barnes & Nobles stores, but these stores lack personality. Requests for some obscure title or subject matter are not always greeted with enthusiasm."
Perhaps most chilling is Smith's ignorance about independent bookstores and his willingness to write them all off and walk away. He tells a by-now familiar story of Barnes & Noble knowing nothing about a title he was looking for and Amazon performing splendidly. It is so easy to leave the brick-and-mortar world for the Internet that he just goes. And "e-commerce," he muses, "is still an infant."
And what could be more timely than a recent "Rhymes with Orange" cartoon strip entitled "Coming Soon: Main Street America." The strip shows a man walking his dog past three store windows with signs as follows: "Closed: Visit us at www.bookstore.com." "Closed! Try us at www.pharmacy.com." And "Closed: Find us at www.five&dime.com."
It's all scary as heck until you consider it's all new, very trendy and absolutely fascinating to buy things on the Internet - and that independent bookstores are weighing in online like a house afire. The ABA's BookSense.com will have over a thousand stores online in September, and BookSite.com has just announced a great bargain for smaller independents to get on the Internet with a half-million-title database at less than $59.95 a month.
So go ahead, you Smiths out there, explore the Web to your heart's content! Just remember, when you get tired of it and want to walk among real books and talk to professional people with actual knowledge that can help you on the spot, independent bookstores are what make neighborhoods so vital regardless of trends and fashions.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
With the latest race for on-line radio, could there be a place for consortiums like Book Sense to set the pace for book marketing and promotion in the next millenium?
Lycos, Broadcast.com (now owned by Yahoo!), WorldNet Box Office (WNBO.com), LookSmart, Infoseek and even AOL have made further inroads into on-line radio broadcasting. Lycos Radio is considering producing talk radio, Broadcast.com has just announced that it will add 30 channels to accommodate new programs. This is all very exciting and has some very important ramifications in book promotions: as radio changes, so does book promotion.
As we all know, one of the best promotional mediums for books is the radio talk show featuring author interviews and book reviews. With the shift in focus from traditional radio to on-line radio, however, the opportunity to advertise/sponsor talk radio now shifts to things like banners and click-on logos.
Realizing that a consortium like Book Sense intends to create a presence on the Web, wouldn't it make sense for them to tie-in directly to on-line radio? I certainly hope they do. This is true for any concortium or independent bookseller with the means to do so. I try to support independent booksellers as much as possible, but someone needs to act quickly. Book Sense was a LONG time in coming and it needs now to pick up the pace in becoming an on-line presence tied in directly to book lovers.
All Book Sense needs to do right now is to research what talk shows will be presented to the Internet users in the next several months and coordinate with those shows as soon as possible, even before their scheduled broadcasts.
Again, I certainly hope that independent booksellers and their cooperatives can link up to this crazy but exciting new medium!Dan Vojir
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Did you read the AP article of June 23 on the first meeting of the Congressional Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce? The Commission was appointed by Congress to recommend how e-commerce should be taxed. It has 5 members from business (all are internet businesses, no community-based businesses.) The rest are assorted government types. The meetings had previously been held up by a suit from the governors who claimed that it was stacked with too many internet people.
The AP article states that their first act was to appoint an executive director, whose husband is a lobbyist for the internet industry. They are also receiving free office space from the same lobbying organization, Electronic Industries Alliance.
Additionally the Commission has asked the 5 represented internet businesses on the Commission to pony up $50,000 each to pay expenses.
With all this nepotism and venality, we are asked to expect that this ridiculous commission will recommend fair taxes on the internet.
One of the first presenters before the commission stated that the loss of sales tax from ecommerce is only $170 million. This is an absurd figure. I don't know where it came from. Thus he implicitly believes that the problem is trivial.Andy Ross