George Bowering's newest book, a memoir called PINBOY, is an absolute hoot. I loved it!
Bowering, who has written literally scores of books - poetry, plays, essays, fiction, etc. - was once Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate and has received numerous honors for his work over a career that spans more than fifty years. And yet, prior to reading this book, I had never heard of him. PINBOY was recommended to me by another Canadian writer whose work I greatly admire, Elizabeth Hay. She apparently enjoyed the book nearly as much as I did, which I could be surprised at, since, besides being a hilariously funny book, PINBOY is also perhaps one of the "dirtiest" books I have read in years. And I put that in quotes because I'm not sure "dirty" really adequately describes Bowering's brutally candid, deliciously ribald, yet also sometimes very sensitive look at what it was like to be fifteen years old, in love with the idea of being in love, and horny as hell in the early 1950s in a small town in southern British Columbia. Whew! That was a real run-on mouthful, huh?
But yeah, it really is pretty dirty, come to think of it. Why else would I have enjoyed it so much? Lotsa sex in there. And not just the "solitary pleasures" most fifteen year-old boys are most familiar with (and young George was no different), but a few other variations too, mostly involving his actual girl friend, Wendy Love(above the waist privileges), and an unscrupulous sexually rapacious teacher, Miss Monica Verge, the high school Home Economics and Business teacher who was at least twice the age of our hero. This latter 'relationship' was a source of great wonderment, fear and trembling to Bowering, although certainly not unwelcome.
Bowering himself calls PINBOY his attempt "to tell about a moment in my adolescence ... when I was trying to live an ordinary kid's life while trying to keep four female human beings happy." The other two females were his mother (who understood her son all too well), and a rather mysterious and obviously poor girl from the other side of the tracks named Jeanette MacArthur. His attempts to break through the tough shell of isolation and independence of this latter female make up some of the best, most sensitive, parts of his story.
But PINBOY is not all about sexual awakening. There's plenty of that 'ordinary kid' stuff in there too, although Bowering was never, I suspect, really 'ordinary.' He loved books, something that set him apart from many of his peers. Like me, George always packed a book wherever he went. And he tells us about what he's reading too. That year it was mostly westerns (Max Brand, Luke Short, Wayne D. Overholser, Ernest Haycox, etc.), although he began sampling other kinds of stuff that year too - Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and George Orwell. George also worked. He had a partime job setting pins in the local bowling alley (hence the title) and also toiled in the local fruit orchards, pruning, thinning, picking, etc. He kept up with all the latest popular music. He had a few close friends in Will Trump, Joe Makse and John Jalovec, and liked to hang out with them around town (particularly the pool hall), speculating and telling lies about about girls and women, smoking and drinking, horsing around and hiking in the nearby countryside. Bowering talks about the importance of looking and dressing well - the greased back 'boogie cut' hair fashion of the times, and the 'drape' pegged trousers and often homemade shirts. The agonies of having almost-but-not-quite-right fashions. In other words, all the usual angst that goes with being a teenager.
Bowering was also an avid baseball and sports fan and worked as a sports reporter for the local newspaper, wearing a funky old fedora with a homemade 'Press' card tucked rakishly in the hatband. His love affair with baseball was one that would last his whole life.
There are so many things I want to say about this truly excellent coming-of-age memoir that I just can't seem to get it all straight in my head, so I'm gonna just give you a few samples here.
On religious differences -
"... the kids in a small town will eventually hear about the strictest rules laid down by someone else's preachers. The Jehovah's Witness kids were not supposed to read any books except the Bible. The Lutheran kids were not supposed to listen to the hit parade. The Holy Roller girls could not use lipstick. The Catholic kids could commit sins all they wanted to, because all they had to do was confess them to the priest and start all over again, clean as a whistle."
On comic books -
"After some US popular psychologist claimed that comic books wer turning kids into criminals, parents all over the place tried to keep them out of our hands. Nowadays, when teenagers carry cocaine in one pocket and a cell phone you can download fellatio movies from in the other, comic books don't seem so scary."
On books and reading -
"My extra-curricular reading went along with my loneness, as it still does. It contributed to it, I think. Sometimes it pissed people off ... I think they might have been smart enough to think that my reading was somehow a criticism of their lives devoid of reading. But I just liked it. It gave me two lives running at the same time. Why would anyone turn that down?"
On boys and early driving experiences -
"Boys driving tractors are really adolescents acquiring a high regard for their own sexual likelihood. I faintly sensed that when I sat up on the seat of that little grey Ford tractor, with the compression snout out front of my crotch. It is part of nature's plan that teenaged lads should roar around fruit groves on loud motorized phalluses, covered with sweat and striped with grime."
And on and on. The thing is, Bowering is a guy who is completely comfortable in his own skin as a writer. Enough so that he's not afraid to poke fun at himself. Here's what he said about his own poetry, much of which has been published in small unknown magazines or by obscure presses -
"I know that guys almost my age have eaten Velveeta sandwiches so they can get my chapbooks of acerbic verses into the hands of the forty people who want to read them while sitting and waiting for the prune juice to work."
I mean this Bowering guy is just plain flat-out FUNNY. He writes like Ring Lardner unleashed from the strictures of censorship. I laughed out loud, I chuckled, I chortled. And I often cringed in recognition. This is writing - GOOD writing - about the universal experience of growing up, of turning from a boy into a man. More than once here Bowering refers to his current self as an old "gink." Me, I'm an old "geezer." I suspect they mean pretty much the same thing, because I can relate. PINBOY is simply one hell of a good read. And not just for ginks and geezers, but for anyone who loves good writing. Bravo, Bowering. Write on!
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER