Ray Guy, the great Newfoundland writer, has died. Spent a few insane nights drinking in his company back when Mary Walsh was running a branch of the El Farolito on Pennywell Road. Here is a review I wrote of one his books,
That Far Greater Bay
Before the original, 1976, publication of That Far Greater Bay there was consensus that its author was Newfoundland’s best journalist and, while they were and are admittedly few, among its leading literary stylists. On reissue by Flanker Press the same holds true. Though he publishes less frequently he remains our great satirist. And all now agree that Mark Twain could fairly be said to be the United States’ Ray Guy.
The newspaper and magazine pieces collected here were sagely edited by Eric Norman. If you haven’t read them for a time you will have forgotten their concision. The lushness of the language (it is a word worshipper who tells of “the fructivity at Clarenville”), and the courage of the thought makes them larger in memory. They were crafted with a newspaperman’s discipline. Lesser bay-born commentators aim Guy high but are too pompous and prolix to pull it off. This stuff is short and sharp, and funny, terrifically funny. There are those on whom Guy grated, but even they must concede that the man is an astonishingly good and original writer.
Distinguishing the satirical and critical writing of Guy’s from the blogoscreeds and snarky tweets of today is the absence of anything resembling bitterness in the former. Though he claims to be a cynic Ray Guy is really a healthy sceptic. He is pointed and tough but he’s challenging hypocrisy, not complaining. There is a large and generous heart in there, one unable to resist something close to sentimentality when it comes to the “outharbour delights” of late “pod auger days” and the natural world of Newfoundland. From “When I Was Small”;
“If you had a stick under the bedroom window there was always a draft to stir the scrim curtains. It was so calm that you could hear the seas rolling in on the beaches far, far out in the Bay like someone breathing very slowly. It was foggy and calm and not even a gull bawled at night.
And a mile across the water at Wrack Cove you could hear every single rock rattle as the water rolled up the broad beach and out again. Across the road and under the cliff a floating tin can bumped against the strouters on the wharf like a sunken bell”
The one quarrel I have with That Far Greater Bay is that it includes too little of Ray Guy’s political writing and too much of his conflicted love for this place. But this is easily remedied by simply seeking out and reading more of him, the wise course.
It is easy to blame the media for the current dearth of keen criticism the like of that which Ray Guy gave us, to say the television and radio stations and the newspapers are toadies for the big businesses that own them, or that the CBC simply lacks the guts. The fault lies instead with the audience. Guy was writing most and best as our colonial inferiority complex was on the wane. He wasn’t blasting Smallwood’s hare-brained schemes and electoral thuggery as much as he was our continued gullibility, our rush to follow, our faith in führers. “He [Smallwood] would rant and rave and mock and jeer. If he was attacking the opposition, what a pitiful sight it was. Talk about underdogs. They were underpups yet unborn and their mothers dead.” Local self doubt wasn’t replaced by confidence as much as it was by puffery and self-congratulation. Is there an appetite among today’s sunny Newfoundland boosters for Ray Guy’s take on the irrational exuberance of development on the North East Avalon, on Senator Twice Manning, on what awaits a tourist lured here by those ads? There are so many Newfies now among us that I have my doubts. Read Guy’s piece on Trudeau’s imposition of The War Measures Act and admit he possessed more smarts and nerve than the crowd.
That Far Greater Bay was a marvellous collection when it first came around. It was welcome then, perhaps more necessary now.