Author Tags: Fiction
"Strikingly unfashionable." -- Robert Harlow
Buday was the author of several educational books for juveniles, such as Exploring Wildlife in Western Canada, when he drew upon his experiences travelling in Asia to write a first novel, The Venetian (Oolichan, 1987), about Marco Polo and his relationship with Kubla Khan. In it Buday speculates as to how Marco Polo must have reacted to experiencing a different culture. He takes a more prickly and modern perspective in his memoir of travelling alone in India, Golden Goa (ECW Press, 2000), in which he tracks 16th century Portuguese poet Luis Camoens, author of the Lusiads, Portugal's national epic. He has also published a collection of chronological stories with common characters, Monday Night Man (Anvil Press, 1995) and the novels, White Lung (Anvil Press, 1999), A Sack of Teeth (Raincoast, 2002), Rootbound (ECW Press 2006) and Dragonflies (Biblioasis 2008).
Unlike that upbeat single Mom pot-grower in that new TV series, or the pot-cultivating British Properties matron in Douglas Coupland’s new comic novel, Buday’s 50-year-old bankrupt and paranoid former building contractor turned reluctant pot-grower in Rootbound only goes from bud to worse. As if it isn’t hard enough these days with Hydro checking everyone’s electricity consumption, poor ol’ Willie LeMat, a down-on-his-luck Willie Loman for the entrepreneurial new Millennium, gets his first crop filched and he has no economic alternative but to grow another one and remain ever-fearful it, too, will be poached. His daughter is pregnant by a Burmese monk, his usurious landlord is a conman and his girlfriend paints only self-portraits; meanwhile purblind losers like LeMat, trying to scrape by, are surrounded by real estate speculators making bundles from an Olympics in 2010 that has already gone way over budget. All this would be funny if only it wasn’t all-too-plausible.
Never one to shy away from the truth in his fiction, Grant Buday recalls Stalin’s systematic starving of two million people in the Ukraine in the 1930s—known as the Holodomor—in his novel about Cyril Andrachuk, the only Canadian-born son of immigrant parents, set in Vancouver in 1962. In The Delusionist (Anvil 2014), Cyril struggles with menial labour jobs during the day but draws incessantly and longs to attend art school. His mother can’t imagine why Cyril wants to draw his late-father’s tools—saws, drills, hammers, wrenches—and questions his sanity when he begins a series of large, commemorative “Stalin stamps” amid growing family distress. For anyone puzzled about the current headlines involving Russia and Ukraine, this darkly comic novel is a potent reminder why few people can never escape from history, even at the western edge of European migration. [See Review Below]
Critically well-received, but too downbeat to be trendy, Buday won the 2006 Fiddlehead Magazine short fiction contest since he relocated from Vancouver to Mayne Island.
Now you see it, now you don't. In 2016, Grant Buday was announced as the winner of Mona Fertig's 3rd annual Great BC Novel Contest for a manuscript called Atomic Road only to have the award strangely revoked by Fertig "because of a dispute over appropriate authorship attribution." No replacement winner was announced. The 3rd Great BC Novel Contest had 56 manuscript submissions and three finalists were announced November 24, 2015. The winner was announced on March 4th, 2016.
See reviews of various Buday books below.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Stranger on a Strange Island: From Main Street to Mayne Island
The Venetian (Oolichan, 1987)
Monday Night Man (Anvil Press, 1995)
White Lung (Anvil Press, 1999)
Golden Goa (ECW Press, 2000)
A Sack of Teeth (Raincoast, 2002)
Rootbound (ECW 2006) $26.95 1-55022-748-3.
Dragonflies (Biblioasis 2008) $19.95 978-1-897231-47-0
Stranger on a Strange Island (New Star Books 2011) 9781554200573 $19.00
The Delusionist (Anvil 2014)$20 978-1-927380-93-2
[BCBW 2014] "Fiction"
A Sack of Teeth (Raincoast $21.95)
In Grant Buday’s third novel, A Sack of Teeth (Raincoast $21.95), it’s 1965 and Jack Klein, age six, is having a harrowing first day of school. His mother, Lorraine, didn’t help him find the right classroom. She was too distracted by the dead body in their basement suite. Antoine Gaudin, the dead renter, is the man Lorraine has fallen in love with. After the police arrive, Antoine’s 36 canaries escape. Lorraine calls her husband at work, only to learn Ray has called in sick. And so has his secretary.
Ray can be found cruising in his Thunderbird towards Charlene’s apartment. That Thunderbird is his life. Ray Klein is an engineer, a war vet and a happening guy who yearns to hang out with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas. The traffic snarls around the courthouse, where a mob is gathering to monitor the court case of Albert Schell, a Nazi found living in Vancouver. Frustrated that a bunch of hippies might cut in on his time with Charlene, Ray remembers Zsa Zsa Gabor’s concise guidance on how to get through the day: ‘Formula for a Happy Marriage: Every man should have a mistress.’
Whereas Lorraine has grown weary of Ray’s car and his dreams of the Nevada desert, Charlene digs it all. “Ray’s Vegas fantasy involved doing it in the Bird with the top down under that desert sky. Charlene would kneel above him all naked and pink and she’d call him Dino, or Sammy, or better yet, Peter. Later—gowned and tuxedoed—they’d catch the midnight show at Caesar’s Palace, get a table right up front where they could hob with the nobs, wink and smile, sip scotch and water, snap their fingers and—while the roulette wheels turned and the dice tumbled—admire the shine of Sammy’s conk.”
This is the garish side of the Sixties that is so often overlooked, that finger-snapping Sammy Davis Jr. era that featured Dean Martin swaggering on his TV show; Frank Sinatra crooning for the Mafia; gas guzzlers and Zsa Zsa saying, ‘Oh, Dahhhhhling’ on talk shows. All that lounge music is making a comeback 40 years later as something cool; Buday is just old enough to remember it wasn’t.
Lorraine remembers why she married Ray. She was 18, he drove, he had a degree, he had been to Europe, and he had a career. She was working as a waitress and dreaming of France. As an added bonus, Ray was Jewish. “To Lorraine, being Jewish meant being part of rituals ancient and awesome and she wanted that; she believed she needed it. She was crushed to discover he was an atheist. “Ray summed up his attitude toward religion in one word: ‘Bunk’. That had been their first argument.”
Ray ended the fight by telling her that she was ‘his people.’ Lorraine was touched, and gave up on converting and rituals. Ham with applesauce was Ray’s favourite dinner. Jack was circumcised, but only for hygiene.
This is not giving too much away.
As in his connected short stories for Monday Night Man and Grant Buday’s acclaimed novel about night shift workers in an industrial bakery, White Lung, Buday’s characters in A Sack of Teeth, seem to have infinite backgrounds and traumas.
The schoolboy Jack? He is not enjoying his first moments of Grade One. The teacher, Mr. Gough, has a Sink or Swim method of education. He slaps his yardstick across his hand while posing a question to the kids. “What happens when words get together?” The six-year-olds are dumbstruck, mesmerized by the rhythm of the yardstick. “Sentences! Words join hands to make sentences!”
The bell rings, the yardstick slams the desk, sending the kids off to recess, Mr. Gough informs the children they will return to this room one day to thank their first grade teacher. Jack escapes through a hole in the schoolyard fence, the first chance he gets. He wants to go back to his mom, to Antoine and those frantic canaries.
Lorraine? As a teenager, she took care of her doped-up mother. The only thing worse than a drugged mother was a mother in public. Once in a while Estelle would decide to straighten up and briefly rejoin the world. “She’d drag herself from her fog, smear lipstick around her mouth, resurrect her hair then bus across town to the Arlington Cabaret to hunt a man and drag him back.”
Lorraine would cover her ears, trying not to hear her mother’s gin-slurred pleading and the excuses of the desperate man who tried to escape her clutches. Other times, Estelle would stumble around the apartment, talking to her dead husband. At school, Lorraine had to listen to other girls gossiping about her mother’s trashy behaviour. How the boys would buy her drinks to egg her on.
Ray? He’d worked from the age of 12, filling in for his bedridden father whose lungs were gassed to rags in World War I. Ray would have to listen to his father wheezing and speaking the Yiddish of his childhood in his sleep. Scared of the German-sounding language, Ray would ask his father about it but he would insist Ray must have dreamt it.
To earn money from the bedroom, Ray’s father would fix watches. “One day his father pried the back off a pocket watch with the point of a jack knife, and invited Ray to admire the intricate world of twitching gears. That’s what Ray’s father had loved about clocks, they were a world unto themselves that you could control and comprehend. Side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, they’d gazed into that watch, his dad pointing to the various components: main wheel, first pinion, spindle, second wheel.”
Ray decided to become an engineer.
Do we get to choose who we love?
At the wedding, Lorraine’s mother had announced calmly to Ray, “You’re a fool,” in front of the entire wedding party. That day Ray explained to the crowd that Estelle was on medication, that they probably shouldn’t have let her leave the institution. Lorraine was happy to send her mother back to the hospital, and to start caring for Ray instead.
Lorraine also loves the Beatles, and studies French in hopes of visiting Paris. One day Antoine buys her a globe for the living room. She and little Jack spin it around, imagining a new adventure with each place their fingers land.
Eventually Lorraine tells her 65-year-old French renter that she loves him, offering to leave Ray.
Antoine replies, “When you want to punish yourself you make someone who loves you hate you.”
Two days later Antoine’s body is found. He leaves one horrific World War II photograph for Lorraine, a suitcase full of European currency and a sack of teeth.
And don’t worry, that title makes sense in the end. 1-55192-457-9
[Lisa Kerr / BCBW SUMMER 2002]
Golden Goa (ECW $17.95)
After five trips to India from 1978 to 1998, novelist Grant Buday has paralleled his Goa-based discoveries with those of the 16th century Portuguese soldier and poet Luis de Camoens in Golden Goa (ECW $17.95), a personalized exploration of the ex-Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman and Diu. Goa was the former ‘jewel in the crown’ of Portugal’s widespread, formerly Catholic empire. 1-55022-412-2
[BCBW AUTUMN 2000]
White Lung (Anvil $15.95)
A graveyard shift bakery janitor named Martin Epp cracks after 21 years on the job in Grant Buday’s White Lung (Anvil $15.95), a darkly comic portrait of racial conflicts in B.C. Described as ‘Dickension in magnitude’, the story is based on Buday’s eight years of work in a mass production bakery. The bakery’s U.S. parent company threatens to close its Vancouver plant in conjunction with union-management conflicts. A section of White Lung won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction in 1997.
[BCBW SUMMER 1999]
White Lung (Anvil $15.95)
Grant Buday’s third novel, White Lung (Anvil $15.95), is about people whose jobs are at risk in an East Vancouver mass production bakery. Comedic, cynical and strangely redemptive, the novel is a slice of urban Vancouver blue collar life, for better or worse, in a state of flux. It’s a tough world as reflected by the title. White lung is an asthmatic condition caused by working around and breathing in flour dust for too many years. It is as Buday describes it, “the baker’s version of what miners got from breathing coal dust.”
Graveyard shift janitor Martin Epp is a prime candidate for white lung disease. “When Epp got home each morning, he coughed flour. He picked it from his nose, his ears, even dug it from his belly button. It went right through his pants and clung to his crotch like he was going gray down there.”
Elements of 1990s’ social trends such as Free Trade, dwindling highly-paid unionized jobs, an upsurge of poorly-paid service jobs and racial conflicts all effect the characters in Buday’s novel. They drink beer at the Blue Boy pub (since renamed), eat at the McDonald’s on Main Street and have union meetings in the Cambrian Hall. The Blue Boy on south-west Marine Drive is “a vast hall lined with beer-sodden carpet, where workers from the various riverside mills drank.” A table at the Cambrian Hall is “scarred with carved initials and sticky rings from slopped drinks.” Buday sums up whole neighborhoods in a similarly terse fashion, again through the tunnel visions of his characters. John Stahl is a violence-prone, frustrated and closeted homosexual who looks askance at the hippie-turned-yuppie community of Kitsilano. “Stahl remembered Kits back in the ’60s. He’d drive through staring at all the welfare weasels and their bra-less women. Now, in the 1990s, it was a money neighborhood. Whole shops devoted to chocolate, comic books, vitamins.”
Stahl lives up the hill from the bakery, near Fraser and 50th, on the margins of Vancouver’s Little India. “Over the years, Stahl had watched the neighborhood change from Scottish and German in the 1950s and 1960s, to Indian and Chinese in the 1980s and 1990s.” He and Sharma, the building’s manager, maintain an ongoing feud about who is superior, Europeans or Indians. Sharma, a Hindu from Fiji, counts his arguments on his fingers. “Chess was invented in India, astronomy was invented in India, medicine was invented in India. You Europeans were living in trees while we had a great civilization.” The building manager replies, “Who invented the goddam airplane you got here on?”
One of the more exuberant characters is an irrepressible rabble rouser Scotty Mutton, who is openly and happily gay. He is a disruptive influence in a union management meeting and throws a hard ball of raw dough at the bakery’s general manager. “Mutton had the complexion of a freshly peeled scab. The scars above his eyes reflected a habit from his youth wherein he’s pried the caps off beer bottles with his brow ridge. Beneath these scars, however, his eyes were merry with a lifetime of jolly sodomy.”
Martin Epp, a runt of a man, finally cracks when his buddy Klaus opts out of their long-held dream of opening their own shop. Epp backs a forklift off the locking dock and vanishes. Epp disappears and a union-management battle ensues. The U.S. parent company is threatening to close down the Vancouver operation.
Grant Buday worked at a unionized mass production bakery in the 1970s and ‘80s. He has since taught English at the community college level.
“There were a lot of people in the bakery who used the bakery to get educated and then got stuck. Most of them were bitter about this,” Buday says. The character that most seized Buday’s imagination was John Stahl. “He rose up like a genie out of a bottle,” he says.
Buday worked alongside a baker on evening shifts who was later convicted of raping and killing an 18-year-old boy. The murderer stored the body in a large plastic bag in his apartment for weeks. The bag was a special contraption from the bakery used for storing old bread to be converted into turkey stuffing. Buday chooses to redeem Stahl in his book.
Although he paints unvarnished and unapologetic profiles, Buday has discovered his bakery colleagues were some of the most important figures in his life. “I used to think my time spent in the bakery was eight lost years,” he says. “Then I realized that what was dramatic and compelling to me were those [bakery] guys. They had stories, real world experiences and were far more interesting to me than any professor I ever met.” 1-895636-20-5
[Beverly Cramp / BCBW Autumn 1999]
From Main Street to Mayne Island (New Star Books, Transmontanus $19)
from Mark Forsythe
In stranger on a strange island: From Main Street to Mayne Island (New Star Books, Transmontanus $19), city boy and novelist Grant Buday describes how he made the leap that many of us dream about: trading frantic, traffic-choked city life for an idyllic Gulf Islands existence.
[Here we cue some gently lapping waves and a close-up of gnarled arbutus trees.]
Buday moved with his wife Eve and their young son Sam from East Vancouver to Mayne Island initially for economic reasons. His teaching job was gone, and $600 rent will get you a three-bedroom house perched above Active Pass. Their move came during the dog days of summer, which then transformed into the gloomy gales of fall: numbing isolation, power blackouts (unprepared, they had no candles or lamps, and a serious lack of flashlight batteries) and a growing compulsion to hoard firewood.
There’s not much call for a novelist on Mayne. Buday manages to survive by stitching together odd jobs, including hooking up with an all-rounder named Evan who can fix motors, run a fishing boat and build almost anything. One of their first jobs together involves retrieving an illegally moored fishing boat on a rainy winter day, then re-locating an uncooperative float and ramp away from lashing winds.
Our greenhorn narrator doesn’t have a clue, and isn’t dressed for the job.
“My wet denim stuck to me like depression,” he writes. “My pale and pink hands resembled bled pork, my back was in spasm.
“As for my teeth, I was clenching them so tightly against the cold that I feared for my dental work. Evan was carrying on quite nicely in all-weather gear.”
The two men come to an agreement: Evan will trade his know-how and survival skills for a word-of-the-day from his bookish colleague. They begin with sprezzatura which means, “grace under pressure,” something Buday sees and admires in Evan in spades.
Eventually Buday lands a part-time job at the local recycling depot, and this makes him “feel as though I’d established myself, however modestly, however humbly, however grubbily. Within days of starting, I was transformed into a recycler.”
Buday learned a lot about his fellow islanders from how they separated their plastics, and the number of scotch bottles they left behind. He also learns the mysterious ways of the B.C. Ferry service (a classic love-hate relationship, but necessary to cross the “watery divide”), how to earn the trust of quirky and eccentric island neighbours, and how to understand where one fits into the island’s social hierarchy.
“Only newly-arrived ourselves, we were rated slightly higher than the week-ender.” Tourists occupy the bottom rung, mocked because they tend to, “drive along at one-and-a-half kilometers an hour, wander the roads three and four abreast, or halt in the middle of the street to snap photos of deer.”
Mayne Island life includes the intricacies of what Buday calls non-verbal communication. When encountering another driver on the road one can simply nod or flash a peace sign. That’s just for starters. “Some people thrust their entire arm out the window and flap it around, the equivalent of a slap on the back and a bellowed: “How are you?”
Sometimes this communication smacks of show biz. “Some do what I call the Wayne Newton: this is a four-part greeting that consists of a point, wink, then a cluck of the tongue, finishing with a rakish, Vegas-style smile.” And they warn us cell phones are distracting?
Island etiquette also frowns upon walking past a person without acknowledging them. City dwellers may find this awkward, being more accustomed to ignoring people. There are diversions into the joys of stacking and burning firewood (fir is best), how to tame a chainsaw and a mesmerizing whale watching excursion with his young son Sam.
Buday’s funny bone reverberates throughout this slim volume, and sometimes he veers into fictional waters. HMS Plumper charted the region in the 1850s, attaching crew members’ names to islands, channels and coves at places like Bedwell, Pender and Mayne. At one point Buday fashions a tale that weaves together the exploits of Lieutenant R.C. Mayne—the island’s namesake—and a pompous ship’s surgeon named Billings, and a cocky island raven.
Leave a novelist on an island long enough, and he’ll find his ground.
Mark Forsythe is the host of CBC radio’s
The Delusionist by Grant Buday(Anvil Press $20)
from John Moore
Never one to shy away from the truth in his fiction, Grant Buday recalls Josef Stalin’s systematic starving of two million people in the Ukraine in the 1930s—known as the Holodomor—in his novel, The Delusionist, set in Vancouver in 1962.
The Delusionist by Grant Buday(Anvil Press $20)
Growing up in Vancouver in the 1950s, I never found it odd that a city with such a brief history itself should be so haunted by the tragic ghosts of world history. Most of the people you met seemed to come from somewhere far away and have families whose lives had been terribly blighted by fascism or Stalinism.
In the opening chapters of Grant Buday’s novel, The Delusionist, the Andrachuk family, survivors of Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine, “avoided the prairies where so many Eastern European congregated and come all the way out to Vancouver to escape being caught up in an enclave that might have kept those wounds open.”
Buday captures the ambiance of 1962 Vancouver like an archaeologist opening a time capsule; the old Aristocratic Café, trying to sneak into Restricted movies on Granville Street’s glittering Theatre Row, ambivalent adolescent friendship and awkward adolescent love, but it’s the portrait of the immigrant family living in the small house symbolically located across the street from a large cemetery that makes this story ring so true. Cyril, the youngest Canadian-born son, may have no memory of the Holodomor in the Ukraine, but he lives in its shadow, surrounded by whispered fears of the “dreaded Koba,” always reminded by the brittle bones and stunted stature his older brother suffered due to starvation as a child.
After his father’s early death in 1955, Cyril maintains a kind of emotional link by executing ever more polished pencil sketches of his father’s old tools. When his first love, Connie Chow, deserts him to pursue her dreams of stardom in Hollywood, Cyril stays behind, working at odd jobs and odd romances, doggedly pushing his pencil on the fringes of Vancouver’s parochial art scene in the 60s.
Even when the winds of social change begin blowing through Vancouver, he doesn’t become deluded by the idea of himself as some kind of great artistic talent. In one of Cyril’s girlfriends, who mistakenly thinks she’s a brilliant jazz singer, Buday paints a somewhat snide portrait of the kind of coffee-house self-proclaimed genius that infested all the arts in Vancouver in those years.
The title of the novel is a little odd, since Cyril has few illusions, never mind delusions. As an artist, he never pretends to be more than just “a guy who draws.” An attempt to visit Connie in Los Angeles goes sadly wrong, as do most of their attempts at reunion in one way or another, yet Cyril never stops loving her.
If Cyril has a delusion, it’s his stubborn patience, the sheer doggedness with which he pursues both his art and his first love over most of a lifetime. Even when his brother tries to screw him out of an inheritance by having him declared ‘delusional’ with the connivance of Cyril’s old high school best friend, Cyril refuses to be ground down or get bitter and twisted. He just keeps on drawing, keeps on loving Connie until he starts to sell a few pieces. The reader has to wait and see whether Connie will ever deign to return or not.
When, in a moment of despair over her own patchy career, Connie says, “it’s just that you wonder what you’ve achieved,” Cyril immediately replies, “I’ll tell you what you’ve achieved; you haven’t spent thirty years wishing you’d done something else.” For any artist, that’s probably as good an epitaph as it gets.
Joseph Stalin, whose ghost haunts the shadows of this story like the smell from a bad drain, once infamously observed, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Good novels that bring to life characters which are not necessarily rich, famous or powerful, are what cut the ground from under Stalin’s cynicism.
Writers like Grant Buday remind us that a million deaths is not merely a number; it’s a million individual human tragedies.
John Moore reviews fiction from the Garibaldi Highlands.