At this time of year, the melancholy part of my mind always turns to the great Canadian writer Paul Quarrington, who died too soon, 11 years ago this month.
About 18 years before I began my writing life, I stumbled upon Quarrington’s hilarious novel, King Leary. It had just won the 1988 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and I could certainly understand why. I laughed my way through the book and marveled at Quarrington’s words and wit. The story centres on a retired hockey player, Percival “King” Leary, who lived in a seniors’ residence in the small town of South Grouse, Ont. His fame decades behind him, he’s invited to come to Toronto to shoot a ginger-ale commercial. Hilarity and wistful retrospection ensue.
Along with the novels of John Irving, Paul Quarrington’s books helped me understand that it is possible to line up words on a page in such a way that they tell a great story, make you laugh and even shed a tear or two. I was captivated by his prose pyrotechnics and read through the entire Quarrington canon. In fact, I was such a dedicated fanboy that I scoured the internet marketplace and acquired first editions of all of his novels, including his very rare 1978 debut, The Service.
In the spring of 2009, I was still doing events around my, then, one and only novel, The Best Laid Plans. I’d been invited by the famed and still-going-strong Grimsby Authors Series to be the opening act for an appearance by Paul Quarrington. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to be asked. And miracle of miracles, Paul and I would be driven to and from Grimsby in the same car. I was beside myself. Like some crazed author-stalker, I loaded up my backpack with my collection of first editions and waited for the car to pick me up. Paul was in the front seat with our shared Penguin Random House publicist at the wheel. I crawled in the back seat with my burgeoning backpack but couldn’t muster the nerve to ask him to sign my first editions. So, we just talked all the way down the QEW to Grimsby and had dinner together with our host before the event. Then we were ushered into the venue where a couple of hundred avid readers waited.
I was first up and my talk seemed to go well. I spoke. People kindly laughed. I read from The Best Laid Plans. People kindly laughed again. And I made it through the Q&A session. Then it was time for the main event. Paul Quarrington took the stage and held the audience in the palm of his hand as he talked about his then-new novel, The Ravine. Before speaking he pulled a bottle of Buckley’s cough syrup from his jacket pocket, took a swig, and placed it on the lectern lamenting the hacking cough he couldn’t seem to shake. He took a few more gulps over the course of his presentation. He was enjoying himself and the audience loved him. Funny and warm, a writer truly dedicated to his art.
After the event, Paul and I sat next to one another at the signing table, his line much longer than mine, as we inscribed books for the audience. On the drive home, I found the resolve to tell Paul what I had in my backpack. He was touched and signed every one of his novels for me by the glow of the car’s dome light.
About a week later, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, which added painful poignance to that little bottle of Buckley’s on the lectern.
A few years after his passing, the then curator of the Leacock Museum in Orillia led a group of four Leacock Medal winners on a road trip from Banff, Alta., to visit a then ailing fifth Leacock Medal winner, the late W. P. Kinsella, in his hometown of Yale, B.C. Our mission while there was to scatter some of the ashes of a sixth Leacock winner, Paul Quarrington, along the shores of the Fraser River. We laughed the entire journey, and cried a little bit too.
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of eight national bestsellers, all published by McClelland & Stewart.