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.