Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I discovered Stuart McLean and The Vinyl Cafe about ten years ago at the Vancouver Public Library. I checked out a collection of his CDs and spent a weekend alternately laughing and crying to stories about Dave, his wife Morley, and their assortment of friends and neighbours. While I’m not a devout fan of the CBC radio show, I certainly have an appreciation for Stuart McLean’s work and turn to it whenever I need to feel good about the world again, particularly Canada, which I haven’t felt so great about in recent years.
The best way to describe The Vinyl Cafe radio show to the uninitiated is that it is to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation what Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon Days are to NPR. It features an awe-shucks host telling folksy tales about nice people with the best intentions, getting in over their heads until hilarity ensues. There’s usually a slap-stick moment where the impossible happens, people get upset but in a nice way, and everything works out in the end. The stories aren’t for everybody, but if you want to kick your feet up and take your mind off the problems of the world without getting high or drunk, then Stuart McLean and his Vinyl Cafe is the cure for what ails you.
Stuart McLean specializes in meditations on quiet moments. Many of the stories in Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe examine people as they face their fears and step out of their comfort zones into a larger world. Little boys talk to monsters in the sewer, little girls prove they are as brave as the boys, and men act like little boys in an attempt to reclaim their youth. A lot of time is spent listening to one character reminisce about their past, telling stories that appear to go nowhere, culminating in a profound conclusion about the present over the course of the telling.
“All these little moments, he thought, who knows which ones are going to count and which ones will be forgotten,” McLean writes. “It’s never the things you think. It isn’t the fishing trip. Or even the fish. It’s the fish head.”
My favourite story in the book is The House Next Door, where Dave’s wife, Morley, is tasked with looking after an expensive fish for a pair of DINKS (Double Income No Kids) that have moved in next door and gentrified their neighbour’s old house. At first Morley is turned off by her new publicist neighbour, but she grows to appreciate her minimalist decor, free of clutter and children. After nearly getting caught taking a bath in their soaker tube, Morley and the publicist share an unspoken moment that defines their relationship as neighbours. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s authentic; something that people living in cities can truly appreciate.
That’s what I love about the Vinyl Cafe, the harmless secrets and circumstances that bring strangers together, sometimes without their being aware of it. It’s the story about the car Dave and his friend take on a joy-ride long after the joy-ride is over; it’s how the doll got in the box, and the explanation of how the dead fish predicted the weather—the facts behind the folklore.
The stories themselves are simple and easy to read. The situations can be a little contrived and implausible, but it’s the way McLean writes about a Saturday in September, or spring in a small town that turn ordinary life into a world of wonder.
Much of McLean’s humour is derived from stating the obvious at just right moment, or Dave confronting his worst fears as one of his misguided plans is about to hit the fan. Although McLean relies on these comic devises, he’s careful never to hit you over the head with them, spreading them out so that they seem fresh every time he springs them on you.
Written for the radio, these stories translate well to the printed page. This is a great collection to take on vacation to a cabin or curl up with in winter. For those of us that remember what it was like to dial a rotary phone, they’re a great piece of nostalgia. For everyone born after that, they may give you some insight into how we experience the world. McLean’s stories have a paint-by-numbs quality to them; simple yet complex, a portrait of landscape that is disappearing as fast the polar icecap.