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2019 Leacock Medal - Boy Wonders

Though textbooks, teachers, and editors tell writers to hook readers from the start, few books grab me with their opening pages.

I might expect to struggle with one that begins by detailing the process of digging a hole in the ground.

But I knew almost immediately that I would enjoy the 2019 Leacock Medal winner Boy Wonders, a memoir by Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly.  Its hole-digging introduction and the chapters that follow blend  thoughtfulness with humour in a way that makes it both fun and worthy of literary award recognition.

In recent years, the Leacock Medal has favoured narratives that tell one long, continuous story, and I had come to believe that this might be the award’s niche in the CanLit landscape. Boy Wonders seems to break with this inclination. It is a disparate collection of reminiscences set in 1970s and 80s Toronto and presented under topics running from Star Wars and Michael Jackson’s Jacket to Porno and Fights. Each story could stand alone.

But together they describe a life experience as well as any long chronicle. In fact, Kelly suggests that reliance on vignettes may be the best approach to autobiography because our memories are just a bunch of fuzzy screenshots, Freud's “screen memories,” augmented by what we think transpired around them. Afterall he says, “at our core, what are we but an agglomeration of the things we believe happened to us?”

In a big way, the book is not about the events of the author’s boyhood, but more of an effort to find meaning in his memories and to tie them to the man he is today.

He believes, for example, his enduring cynicism began in the lineup to see The Empire Strikes Back when a van soared by, announcing “Darth Vader is Luke’s father! Darth Vader is Luke’s father!”

The digging of the hole that opened the book marked him similarly and became memorable because the trench grew too deep to escape.  He stayed there for what may have been hours before his mother calmly rescued him.  As she does, you learn of her stoic Irishness and single-parent influence.  In these initial pages, you also glimpse the author’s skill in vocabulary, metaphors, and pacing; and you start to understand how minor events can assume significance both in shaping our adult selves and in illuminating the wonders of everyone’s early years.

We are reminded that childhood is the time when humans can “have purpose without an end,” play with “no objectives or goals,” and just “do in order to do.”

As I hoped, this bemused musing flowed throughout Boy Wonders. 

Yet in reading these stories, I recalled parallel personal experiences often thinking that my own were richer, more dramatic and interesting, at least to baby-boomer me.  Kelly’s recollection of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster resonates with my day around JFK’s assassination, the connection he feels for post-disco, glam-metal music surprised me with its similarity to my attachment to the sounds of the sixties, and his reactions to Orwell were much the same as what I witnessed in my kids at even earlier ages.  This all made me reflect.

But unlike my random screen memories, Cathal Kelly’s stories make for a good book because of the craft applied to their recounting. This, in turn, induces that introspection, which is the effect of a memoir that may lack technical information and historical detail, but brims with personality, candor, and wit.

Of course, when we examine our own experience, try to find meaning, and search for perspective, it helps to do so with a mollifying sense of humour: the practice that the Leacock Medal celebrates and that this year’s winner seems to do with ease.

Do yourself a favour 

Cost me $4.99 for the book on Kindle