Last Resort: A Memoir

by Linwood Barclay

Published by McClelland & Stewart

279 pages, 2000

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The Place to Be

Reviewed by Tom Nolan


Many Canadian newspaper readers know Linwood Barclay as the byline atop a popular column in the Toronto Star, wherein the Ontario writer waxes hilarious three times a week on the absurdities of modern life, rather like a thinking man's Dave Barry.

A growing number of book readers also know Linwood Barclay as the author of three previous volumes, whose titles hint that they're propelled by the same sort of urgent humor that often causes his column's followers to laugh out loud in public: Father Knows Zilch, This House Is Nuts! and Mike Harris Made Me Eat My Dog.

But Barclay's lovely fourth book is something else again. While Last Resort: A Memoir offers plenty of earthy humor, it's also a unique coming-of-age story told with admirable candor and quiet grace.

The idyllic setting for Barclay's eventual maturation is at Pigeon Lake, located "three miles south of Bobcaygeon, in Victoria County, in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario, at a place called Green Acres, a name which took a bit of getting used to." The seven-cottage, six-trailer resort encompasses 10 acres, an expanse of pine trees and 400 feet of shoreline. Linwood, at age 10, gets his first vivid glimpse of his new home-to-be in 1965, through the windshield of his family's Dodge: "The road crested, then banked down and to the left, opening up... In the distance, over a hill and along the horizon, a glorious shade of blue and then green. The lake and the far shore."

His parents' purchase of Green Acres, Barclay writes, is partly the culmination of his mother's longtime love of trailer vacations: "While some people dreamed about getting away to the Riviera, Mom was swept away by the notion of hooking your home to your bumper." But there are more urgent concerns involved. Barclay's father is a commercial artist whose picture-perfect magazine and billboard illustrations of Detroit's annual products have made him "one of the finest 'car men' on the continent." Times are changing, though -- photography is in, illustrations are out. Life demands a midlife career change. "This place," Barclay's dad "jokes" of Green Acres, "is my last resort."

The resort does business all summer -- "from the May weekend when pickerel season opened all the way through to Thanksgiving in October" -- but there are important chores in other seasons, too. Young Linwood assumes his share of tasks from the start. One of his earliest jobs is to empty a leaky metal bucket of innards from the fishermen's daily catch and bury its contents in the woods. He writes:

A miscalculation brought about unimaginable horrors. One day I was carrying the can by the handle past the office when, with a bit of a splurrsshhh, the bottom of the bucket gave way and its contents spilled out onto the gravel roadway. Guts, eyes, fins, bones, and a piscatory ooze spread out before me, taking my breath away.

As he grows older, Barclay's responsibilities expand. He cuts grass with a converted John Deere tractor, which provides him with a cool set of wheels. In an especially winning section of this book, the author describes helping his dad put in new docks one spring, after which the exhausted duo doze while waiting for a lunar eclipse:

Dad could see the earth's shadow begin to obscure the moon. He nudged me awake, and we watched it together, lying on our backs... It was as though we were the only ones on the planet seeing this show. In some ways, we were.

Entering adolescence, Barclay develops a keen interest in the girls who visit Green Acres each summer with their families, coming all the way from Pennsylvania, Ohio and such far-off points. He becomes adept at reading the advance reservations chart and deducing on which day and even at what hour the objects of his various crushes will arrive. "There was something about the summer," he muses nostalgically. "Things happened that were impossible any other time of the year. Everything moved more quickly. Life was set at a faster spot on the dial."

As life spins more quickly, though, Barclay realizes that the time he gets to spend with his dad is more important than any summer fling. Soon there's all too little time left. His father grows ill and 15-year-old Linwood's camp duties multiply.

Other realities intrude, as well. Barclay's older brother, brilliant but distant, becomes seriously disturbed after entering the U.S. Army. His mother's inherent and willful eccentricities become more pronounced ("Even as a child, she was committed to making points that proved nothing to anyone but herself"). Finally, his father is only a memory, one that rushes Barclay poignantly at oblique moments, as when he gazes lovingly at the rows of old autos in a junk yard: "[T]he massive chrome grills, the tailfins, the oversized but beautifully sculpted fenders. These were the cars Dad had drawn."

In the absence of his father, the adolescent Linwood comes to depend on the friendship and practical knowledge of Green Acres' recurring male guests, a rough-and-ready bunch all the more likable for being sketched here with warts and all. These men take him fishing, pull him out of occasional pitfalls and offer free (if dubious) advice -- they "helped raise me," he comes to see.

The author-to-be also develops his own good instincts and survival skills. Wanting to be a writer someday, he reaches out by letter to one of his heroes: Canada-reared detective novelist Ross Macdonald, whose private eye, Lew Archer, often has cause to discover something Linwood Barclay is learning -- that, as Barclay writes in Last Resort, "when you lose your father at a relatively young age, you can spend the rest of your life trying to find him again."

Typically, Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) responded sympathetically to the boy's missives, becoming a mentor in absentia and -- during a brief visit to Ontario -- in person. (Barclay and Macdonald corresponded for about a year; eventually the onset of the mystery author's Alzheimer's disease ended their contact.) Barclay also meets another Canadian novelist, Margaret Laurence, author of The Stone Angel, while she's writer-in-residence and he a student at Trent University, and in the course of their subsequent friendship, he learns that she, too, is a Ross Macdonald fan.

This way and that, Linwood Barclay reaches manhood: marrying, having children of his own and coming full circle emotionally in a way that's beautifully shown at the end of this wonderful memoir. Barclay's straightforward and unadorned prose might be mistaken for the merely anecdotal; but it allows him to re-create long-ago moments with an immediacy that's palpable. And it lets him subtly convey the crazy-quilt way that life happens: teenage fun bumps into grownup sadness, loved ones can turn troubled or troubling -- or disappear. Barclay's style may seem simple, but the effects he achieves are anything but. For a comparable work that blends comedy and melancholy, think perhaps of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Last Resort is charming without being saccharine, moving but never phony, serious without a trace of pretension. It's a rough gem shining in the summer shallows of a recent past. Surely the author's artist father -- as well as Ross Macdonald and Margaret Laurence -- would be proud. | July 2000


Tom Nolan is a contributing editor of January Magazine and the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner).