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Ray Smith - Canadian Humourist

· Ray Smith,Cape Breton,Halifax,Humourist,Canadian Writer

As I have mentioned in previous musings, one of the delights of being a book person is discovering talented writers that may be new, but more likely are not new but just not well known, to me anyway! And a few days ago, I discovered Ray Smith.

I was in a thrift store, and the spine of a book caught my eye – Cape Breton is the Thought Control Capital of Canada! Yeah – right, I said to myself as I picked the book from the shelf, noting that the top of the dust jacket was somewhat tattered. But the book itself was in really good shape, published by an outfit, House of Anansi, Toronto, 1969. Never heard of that publisher before. But obscure, I’m sure, thought I. It was a book of short stories, and I scanned a few and I must admit the writing was quite interesting. Worth the investment, thought I. As a lover of the unusual and obscure, it was an easy decision to make.

When I got home, after stopping to look at and buy some books from a person who had contacted Raven & Gryphon Fine Books a few days earlier, I googled Ray Smith. Holy Smokes - he has his own Wikipedia page, and other links including the Globe and Mail’s obituary notice. What Have I found here?

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His photo on the rear of the dust jacket, reminded me of J. P. Donleavy, who I have actively collected over the years. He comes from Inverness, Cape Breton, now home to two of the best golf courses in the world! Went to Dalhousie University, in Halifax, moved to Toronto upon graduation – like someone else I know very well, ahem, and then to Montreal where he expects to live forever, ahem. (Doesn’t happen, ahem).

Here is what I gleaned from the world of internet information.

Ray Smith, born James Raymond Smith, (1941 - 2019) was a Canadian novelist and short story writer. He was born on 12 December 1941 in Mabou, Inverness County, Cape Breton and educated at Dalhousie University, Halifax (B.A. 1963), and at Concordia University, Montreal (M.A. 1985). He worked as an instructor in English at Dawson College, Montreal, until his retirement in 2007. In the early 1970s he joined with authors Clark Blaise, Raymond Fraser, Hugh Hood, and John Metcalf to form the celebrated Montreal Story Tellers Fiction Performance Group.

For more than three decades, Ray Smith has occupied a distinctive position on the margins of the Canadian literary scene. His work is characterized by an interest in experimentation, but there is no discernible pattern of development. Each of his books is markedly different from the others, and none fits comfortably into the standard academic overviews of Canadian literature.

His first book, Cape Breton Is the Thought Control Centre of Canada (short fiction), is one of the earliest Canadian examples of experimental writing in the international tradition and is widely acknowledged as a milestone of early Canadian postmodernism. (Of American writers, perhaps Donald Barthelme provides the closest analogue.) The relentless, witty interrogation of short story form underscores a parallel skepticism about perceived truths in other areas of life. This collection was reissued by the Porcupine's Quill in the late eighties and is available as an e-book, today.

Smith's works include the novels Lord Nelson Tavern (McClelland & Stewart, 1974), A Night at the Opera (Porcupine's Quill, 1992), which won the 1992 QSPELL Hugh MacLennan Award for Best Novel, and The Man Who Loved Jane Austen (Porcupine's Quill, 1999). He has also published the short story collections Cape Breton Is the Thought Control Centre of Canada (Anansi Press, 1969) and Century. His short fiction has also appeared in numerous anthologies.

In August 2010, literary critics Alex Good and Stephen W. Beattie included Smith in their list of the ten most underrated writers in Canada, published on the National Post's website.

In the end, Ray moved back to the family home in Mabou. His grandfather opened the MacMillan General Store, in Mabou, which is now home to the Red Shoe Pub, owned by members of the famed Rankin family. Mabou was his home and he loved every moment there. Those who knew him in-town might remember his signature visor and Tilley hat, and glasses that he wore while sitting out on the veranda. He loved to watch the traffic and people by day and the stars by night, always with a book by his side. He died at his home in Mabou on 20 June 2019.

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It is noted above that this was one of the first books published by the House of Anansi. This is evident by the fact that the dust jacket of the book is 10mm higher than the book itself. This is why the top of the dust jacket is so tattered. My guess is that the major booksellers of the day likely would not have carried this book in stock. It was likely a very small print run and distributed by Smith himself and boutique booksellers. There are no copies on the internet. But our copy will soon be there.

There are 9 short stories in this book.

From Peril:

  • Then Passquick asked timidly what the little man did…was,,,is…err….
  • Why, I’m a necromancer, of course
  • A necromancer?
  • I conjure the dead
  • Oh yes, of course

From The Galoshes – the opening paragraph:

  • Dismal is the word one begins with when talking of February in Halifax. The sun has been known to shine in January or March, but it is under an unrelieved cloak of grey that February sits upon Citadel Hill and broods over the port city beside the sullen North Atlantic. For his first nineteen days, February dwells in the house of Aquarius, the eleventh sign of the zodiac and the deepest pit of zodiacal night. The days remaining to him are spent in the house of Pisces, which stands for the end of all earthly phenomena; Pisces, being a dual sin, has another half, the promise of rebirth, but this predominates only when March has assumed tenancy.

I just might have to read this book before it is sold!