Had Hugh MacLennan been an anarcho-syndicalist and a D.H. Lawrence devotee, he might have written books like Cabbagetown
, a voluminous tale of depression-era Canada that's arguably Hugh Garner's finest novel. First published in a bowdlerized edition in 1950, Cabbagetown
is one of the few Canadian novels published before 1960 that is genuinely frank about sex and politics, and as a result, it's one of the few literary artifacts of its time to dismantle the myth of Toronto the Good.
Set in Toronto's east-end Cabbagetown neighbourhood ("the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America," not the comfortable middle-class enclave it has since become), Garner's novel begins on the eve of the Great Depression, with his teenage characters leaving school, finding paltry jobs, and attending half-innocent kissing parties at their more privileged friends' homes. The effects of the stock market collapse slowly begin to crush Cabbagetown's paltry economy, and Garner's characters--the earnestly struggling Ken Tilling and the sometime love of his life Myrla Patson most prominent among them--do what they can to survive. Some turn to crime, prostitution, or wage slavery and others ride the rails, while one cynical social climber becomes a crypto-fascist and government clerk.
Cabbagetown is chiefly notable as an alternative social history of Toronto. There's nothing puritanical about Garner's novel; in this Old Ontario, people cruise for sex in city parks, drink themselves to death, and lie, cheat, cuss, and steal for all they're worth. It's also an Ontario rife with political struggle: in one of the novel's most disturbing scenes, a gang of fascist youths attacks a party of picnicking Jews at Cherry Beach; later, Ken Tilling finds his way into the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. As literary art, Cabbagetown is decidedly second-tier. Readers who have yet to read Norman Levine's (By a Frozen River or Canada Made Me) shouldn't turn to Garner just yet. Nonetheless, its brutal honesty makes it a consistently rewarding novel, and far more than a mere historical curiosity. --Jack Illingworth