New Star Blogs

The Excelsior Hotel Incident

This week's news, that The Sacred Herb / The Devil's Weed by Andrew Struthers has been nominated for the Hubert Evans Award in the BC Book Prizes, reminded us of the author's earlier brush with this country's literary prize machinery.  That was in the late 1990s, when Struthers was nominated for a National Magazine Award for The Green Shadow in its original form, serialized in the Georgia Straight.  He tells that story in Chapter 1 of The Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan (2004), from which this excerpt is taken.

After university I tried living “on the Grid”, with a day job and a credit history and a notice of disconnection and a stress-related skin disease, but it just wasn’t me. So I moved into the forest in Clayoquot Sound and built a pyramid out of cedar and glass, perched on a hundred-foot cliff, looking out through a canopy of giant trees over a sparkling limb of the Pacific.

On the horizon lay an island where the ancient village of Echachist once stood, until it was destroyed in battle two centuries back. For years there was no sign of human activity down there. Then one evening the setting sun caught on two golden cedar beams. Someone was raising a house frame.

I asked around at the Common Loaf Bakery. The builder was Joe Martin, whose forebear had been the chief at Echachist. I watched Joe’s house go up, and just before he finished the roof the Federal Government slapped a demolition order on my door. My house wasn’t up to code. I moved into town for the winter, and by spring the fuss had died down, so I carried my stuff back up the hill and continued my contraband lifestyle.

To pay the bills I worked on fish boats in summer and at the fish plant in winter. My one attempt at a career was writing, but it didn’t work out. I loved the writing but hated the career. These days you can’t simply write, you also have to be a celebrity, which I find unsettling, because the only celebrity I resemble is Shrek.

But I gave it my best shot, and right away things got out of hand. I wrote one story — The Green Shadow — and next thing I knew I was nominated for a national humour award, up against Mordecai Richler. The awards banquet was at the Excelsior Hotel in Toronto. The entrée was pork — not my favourite at the best of times, and with Mordecai on one side and Paul Quarrington on the other, vying for quips, I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a bite. Mordecai was just the opposite. The guy had an intense love of pork, I guess. He ate his meal, and then he ate mine. Then he wandered around the banquet hall scoring pork rinds from the plates of strangers, all the while puffing on a rancid Gauloise and swigging haughtily from a giant bottle of Cherry Jack.

When the MC announced the winner, Mordecai didn’t even listen. He ran, snuffling and wheezing and wiping the grease from his stubby sausage fingers on the frills of his cheap rental tuxedo, to the stage, where he grabbed the award, shouldered the MC aside and began grunting platitudes into the microphone.

Okay, that never happened. I didn’t even go to the awards banquet. My account is what we fishermen call a yarn. It starts with the truth and casts off from there. What makes Clayoquot Sound’s yarns unique is that the truth is often stranger than fishing. Here’s what really happened that night.

The awards were the same day as the fun fair at Pasheabel’s school. She had just turned six, and what she wanted more than anything in the world was to win a cake in the
cakewalk. We bought a ticket and tried and lost. Bought another ticket, lost again. Third time I said, “This is all the money I have left. If we go in the cakewalk again, we can’t afford to go in the haunted house.”

But Pasheabel knew what she wanted. Cake. Not so much to have cake as to win cake. So round we went again, and when the music stopped we were standing on the sweet spot. Sally Mole came running up to us. “You won!”

It seemed like a good omen, and it was. I thought about Mordecai and the awards banquet. They must be announcing the winner right about now. Suddenly I knew I had won that too. It was one of those moments when it seemed the mysterious thread that sews together the lives in a small town runs deeper than anyone imagines, connecting every human life, even mine and Mordecai’s.

Sally handed us an evil-looking chocolate bunt baked by Ian Bruce’s kid, who was barely older than Pasheabel — but to us it was a magic cake. We took it down to Barry Grumbach’s house. Barry was a crab fisherman who lived on the inlet. The night was full of stars, the inlet was flat as glass, and on the grass behind the house the usual suspects were roasting a giant ling cod and playing tunes. Halfway through the evening, Charles Campbell called from the Georgia Straight. “You won!”

The party went ballistic, everyone chanting, “Nice try, Mordecai!” I forget what happened next. At dawn Pasheabel and I woke up on the couch to find our magic cake had
been eaten by drunks. There was nothing left except a swirly pattern on the plate where someone had licked it clean.

It seemed like a bad omen, and it was. After that night my writing career took a sinister turn. When the book version of The Green Shadow came out, my publisher, Rolf Maurer, a German intellectual with a huge forehead and a soul patch, sent me on a tour to flog it. The interviewers asked the same questions over and over and over until I started making the answers up out of sheer boredom, and then they nailed me on the facts. It was like spending a week downtown in a miniskirt that didn’t quite cover my ass. The low point came on CBC’s Almanac, with Cecilia Walters. The studio was cavernous and empty. It seemed too grand for radio. It was more like a TV studio that had gone blind. I sat in the green room listening with horror as the guest before me told a harrowing tale of surviving breast cancer. When I got to the hot seat, Gloria was sobbing like a schoolgirl. This was going to be a tough act to follow.

I read a chapter, and Gloria chuckled with glee and asked if I still lived in my pyramid in the woods. Dead air. The Feds still had that demolition order on my house. If I told the truth, town council would be obliged to evict me all over again. “No,” I said, “I live in a double-wide trailer on Chestermans Beach.”

Back in Tough City I climbed the trail to my pyramid and found three Commercial Drive hippie chicks and an Australian shaman camped out on my floor. They had braved the pass, bushwhacked through the rainforest to my place, unrolled their bed mats, lit my oil lamps, and used my only saucer as an ashtray. They comprised what Rolf called my “fan base”. I said, “You people have to go.” But the Aussie had other ideas. He wanted to unblock my root chakra by laying his didjeridoo across my ass and blowing. I said, “Mister, I don’t even know you.”

By now you’re thinking, This has got to be another yarn. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. Out here, yarn and truth get tangled. A lot of Clayoquot tales are true at one end and tall at the other. But I swear on the grave of Jesus, every tale I’m about to tell you is true at one end.