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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
Brian Fawcett is one of those writers you wish were more popular. That he isn't might mean he actually has something interesting and important to say. Speaking the truth, after all, is not often rewarded with popularity.

Who is Brian Fawcett, anyway?

A former poet who worked for the B.C. Forest Service and later as an urban planner in Vancouver, Fawcett moved from poetry to prose when he realized, as he puts it in his collection of essays, Local Matters (2003), “I’d pretty much mined out my youthful lyric vein...learning that life is not quite about my private feelings.” And fortunately so, because Fawcett is one of the most biting critics of globalization, rampant commercialism, and economic fundamentalism writing today.

Dissatisfied with the woeful inadequacy of conventional corporate news-gathering, he and fellow writer, American-born Canadian émigré Stan Persky, launched, a website of essays free from the newspaper constraints of word-limit and facile flash. And they should know: Persky, a philosophy instructor (one of mine) at Capilano College, is a former Vancouver Sun columnist, and Fawcett is a former Globe & Mail one.

Fawcett's also a former editor of Books in Canada, and has authored over a dozen books, including six books of poetry (published between 1971 and 1982), along with others that defy the fiction/non-fiction divide. Books like Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986), The Secret Journals of Alexander Mackenzie (1985), My Career with the Leafs and Other Stories (1982) and Gender Wars: A Novel and Some Conversations About Sex and Gender (1994). His books slip between reportage and invention, sometimes with a narrative running along the top half of the page and an explicative, or at least parallel-themed essay, running along the bottom.

The subtitle of Fawcett's collection of essays, Local Matters, "A Defense of Dooney's Café and Other Non-Globalized Places, People and Ideas", refers to both the website (the book is comprised mostly of his updated pieces) and the café it's named after. That café served as Fawcett's "office" and a hangout for Canadian writers for years, until its owner put it on a restaurant makeover show, which, of course, ruined the place. It was sold soon after, and I'm not sure if Fawcett still writes there anymore.

Fawcett's writing, as a title like Local Matters suggests, focuses strongly on the particular, on details rather than generalities. So whether it's a book review, a vacation story, a chastisement of Toronto city-planning or a critique of the Canadian literary scene, Fawcett paints a clear and always personal picture of his subject, avoiding the grand generalizations and "objective" stance of most hack writers.

Along with compatriot John Ralston Saul, Fawcett has long detailed the increasingly bureaucratized, distant, destructive, and self-serving power structures of contemporary business-infected politics and media. And both authors’ styles have morphed from angry polemic to a more sober analysis, as anyone who’s compared Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards to his later On Equilibrium can attest to.

This “calming down” is just one intentional theme of Fawcett’s memoir, titled The Way Things Are. Or at least that would be the title if his publisher hadn’t insisted on the decidedly flashier Virtual Clearcut: Or The Way Things Are In My Hometown (2003). That hometown is Prince George, BC, and the book (which won the Pearson Prize for Canadian non-fiction) centers on the fact that it, like many other small communities, in Fawcett's words, is “being screwed in a special way by all the wealth-sucking forces of globalization.”

From Gilgamesh to globalization

With Orwellian clarity, seriousness, and honesty, Fawcett explores Prince George's early history and development, from the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s original city layout through to the present era of industrial clear-cutting forestry, a history in which “commercial life always took precedence over civic life.” He compares the Bowron River valley clear-cut (vast enough to be seen from space) to the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, our oldest surviving written story. Fawcett writes, “From one rarely articulated view, the story at the root of all human development is the story of the eradication of the world’s trees. The Epic of also history’s first logging tale.”

Fawcett, refering to his stint in the B.C. forestry service, points out, in perhaps his most depressing observation, that as “a former bureaucrat, I have come to believe that our political representatives almost never understand the way things are, and that their paid officials have the job of keeping them—and often themselves—as carefully ignorant as possible.”

As for the appeal that any commercial industry’s stated intention is benevolent, Fawcett writes, “5,000 years ago in what is now treeless Iraq claimed that he and his friend Enkidu killed the monster Humbaba to protect the people of Uruk. What they were really doing was logging the cedars of the sacred groves because they wanted to build a bigger palace for themselves.”

Men and slapstick

The book is also, Fawcett writes, “accidentally but unapologetically...about men...what they think and how they act in the world, as boys, friends, husbands, and as workers, bosses, technologists, or as critics and apologists of globalization—even occasionally, as reasonable adults and citizens.”

In the fittingly titled first section, “Paradise, 1990,” Fawcett is confronted with the Prince George he doesn’t want to see: the one that confirms how bad things are. His former paradise: lost. On a road trip with his son Max, eleven at the time, Fawcett laments the divide between fathers and sons, and the stubbornness of his own youth: “The Truth...was a substance of which I naturally thought I had an exclusive grasp.” So instead of berating his son with “lame excuses about how Salmon River was beautiful, once upon a time, before it was sullied by evil, stupid people,” he accepts that “for the rest of my life, and probably the rest of my son’s life, we’re going to have to live with this truth: we’re the barbarians responsible for creating places like Salmon River and the clearcut in the Bowron River valley. Everyone of us.”

Fawcett credits one man in particular, Bill Morris, to whom the book is dedicated, not only with making him “understand that writing books was something people like us might actually do,” but with fostering a sense of slapstick about everyday life. Morris, a Prince George resident for most of his life and who died of liver cancer during the eleven-year span of Fawcett’s memoir, “was a storyteller, skilled at weaving tales from what . . . had seemed like flimsy local materials.”

Other men in town—loggers, struggling entrepreneurs, municipal officials—are scrutinized as much as Fawcett himself, who writes in a consistently self-deprecating tone. But it’s the daughter of Fawcett’s long-time friend and Prince George English teacher, Bryn McKinnon, who gets the last laugh on the men. Over drinks and a heated discussion in which one of the men “winds down a tirade about half-assed environmentalists who’ve never had to face the difficulties of raising a family or making a living,” Bryn McKinnon shoots back, “’You know what people like me are doing here? We’re waiting for dinosaurs like you to die off.’”

The way things should be

By the book’s close, Fawcett comes to shed most of his cynical pessimism. He began writing the memoir around the publication of Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of The World (1990), an angry book about the decay of imagination in the culture and its replacement by shallow commercialism. But all his work illustrates that writers should have, as he insists, a “relentless eye for bullshit.”

Bullshit-spotting may be a declining art, perhaps because, as Fawcett points out, like “every other community college in North America operating under the influence of the local Chamber of Commerce” “the college (Barry McKinnon) taught at since the early 1970s began ‘downsizing’ its liberal arts program in order to emphasize a series of half-baked job-creation schemes aimed at turning Prince George into an industrial hub of the north.” Civic education, or lack of it, is, therefore, at the heart of economic exploitation. Or, as Fawcett writes, “The true poison is the town’s inability to recognize and protect its own interests.”

In a democracy, even a decaying one like ours, citizens have the responsibility to look at the world around them and think of others, that is, if they don’t want to see democracy dissolve completely. Fawcett, in this regard, is an immensely important writer. As for his mission, he puts it this way: “I have tried my damndest to secure the facts in this book. Doing so has served to convince me that there is no such thing as non-fiction, but that the effort to reach it is among the sacred projects of human intelligence.”

A slightly shorter version of this piece originally appeared in The Republic of East Vancouver, issue of August 16 to August 29, 2007 - No. 170



These are very interesting summarries. And I'm adding him to my endless number of books to read.

For some reason I wanted to see the covers of those books when you mentioned them.



Replying to Alamir:
They're hard books to find, outside a library. I was lucky enough to find a copy of Public Eye in, of all places, a clothing store in my building. And it was free.

I also found a copy of Gender Wars at Albion Books. Local Matters is easy enough to find, and Virtual Clearcut, too, although I got that one directly through Stan Persky's class.

Definitely check out the Dooney's Cafe website, though.



Here's a question more than a statement: Why should I bother reading about a no-name if I'm almost certain that no one else has? I won't have anyone to discuss his works with and his name is too small for me to cite him as a credible source unless it has to do with something about urban planning in B.C. He's not your favourite author, and not even your favourite B.C author. So if I acquire all the knowledge he put in his poems and works at best I'll have an interesting book that I can't really share. It's not bad, but it's like being a DJ at a club trying to play your own "special" hits that no one really knows or cares about because everyone just wants to dance.



Replying to Lilian:
Hmmm. Where to start?

Perhaps I did make Fawcett out to be more obscure than he actually is. Not many people I talk to know about him, and the article was meant partly to address that problem. That is, I'd like more people will check him out if they come across the article. Here's hoping.

You ask, "Why should I bother reading about a no-name if I'm almost certain that no one else has?"

First of all, "no-name" is a bit of an overstatement, one I didn't wish to imply.

So why should you or anyone else read him? Well, because he's a really interesting author. Do you need any more motivation than that? If you want to find a book that you can discuss with lots of people, then buy an Oprah book-of-the-month.

Fawcett doesn't just write about urban planning in BC, either. He write about lots of stuff. Too much to list here. Maybe I wasn't clear about that in the article. Maybe...but I don't think so.

I'm not sure what Fawcett not being my favourite author has to do with anything, but he certainly is one of my favourites. Did I say anything about favourites in the piece?

I'm also not sure why you think you can't share something just because you're the only one whose read it. I shared him with you (and about 30 others, I guess), and I'm apparently the only one who's familiar with him. Anyway, it's not sharing if the other person already has it.

As for the DJ analogy: not quite right. There's something to be said for expanding one's horizons. And besides, dance music is pretty much the antithesis of a book. Dancers want a familiar, catchy tune to get down to, mindlessly. Reading a book, on the other hand (actually, "the other hand" still seems too close to that first hand), is about learning something new and different, unfamiliar and often unsoothing. Nothing like a dance beat at all.

Points taken, though, Lilian. Thanks for the comment.



OK, I was just interested in w what you had to say about it. I wasn't trying to make a statement, just a thought that crossed my mind as I read this.

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