The art of storytelling is not necessarily a dying art, but is one which is getting a little gray on top and wheezing a little. In the last week or so, I revisited one of its finer recent practicioners, reading Stuart McLean‘s Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. It was the third compilation of his “Vinyl Cafe” stories which he put out with some regularity for over 20 years until his death in 2017.
McLean had decent careers as an English professor, then a news journalist before settling in to become one of Canada’s most beloved media types by telling stories about folks who felt like family. If that sounds a bit familiar to Americans, it probably should. McLean’s often been referred to as “Canada’s Garrison Keillor.” The comparison is obvious, with both telling stories of ordinary small town folk on public radio then publishing them in compilation form. Of course, while Keillor’s stories were set in his fictitious Lake Wobegon and was mainly heard on NPR, McLean’s were set in Toronto. Now, Toronto is anything but a “small town” but it is also a city of neighborhoods, and McLean made us feel like residents of Dave’s little corner of it.
For those unfamiliar, the Vinyl Cafe stories center around Dave, a middle-aged proprietor of a vinyl record store, and his family, wife Morley and two kids. The stories flip back and forth between his record store, his home life and quirky neighbors and the odd reminiscence of his youth in rural Nova Scotia or his career as a rock roadie when young and single.
The stories are generally relatable, sometimes warm, sometimes witty. The term which seems to fit is “gentle humor”. Not many of these stories will make you fall on the floor laughing, but in general they do make you feel like Dave and Morley are family, have you cheering on their little victories and nodding along with their foibles or frustrations of having a teen girl and ‘tween boy to shepherd into adulthood.
The themes are familiar, lower-case ones. Dave’s buddy’s wife doesn’t like him much and doesn’t realize he didn’t go with said buddy on a run to the beer store when she dashes to the kitchen in the nude to get a drink. An old customer comes back to his store after being away for seven years and the most valuable record Dave owned ( a 1930’s 78 by Geechie Wiley) has them reminiscing and catching up on each other’s lives. A stodgy old aunt comes from Britain to visit and go to a Due South fan convention – she’s obsessed with the Canadian Mountie show – but ends up being taken away for an impromptu fling on a little fishing boat. The family decide it would be nice to make each other Christmas presents but find the idea is nicer than the stressful reality of doing so. Nothing earth-shattering but then again, nothing that causes us to have much “suspension of disbelief” nor to flinch or have our hearts miss a beat. No Stephen King scary clowns or rabid dogs in the Vinyl Cafe.
I’ve read a number of his books (there are around 10 different “Vinyl Cafe” titles, although some of them are essentially “best ofs”) and enjoy them. I like his style, I like the references to my homeland and a city I’ve strolled the streets of and shopped the stores in, and feel no small amount of kinship with a 50-ish year old guy called Dave who loves Blue Jays baseball and mostly, music. However, as I got further into the book, my honest assessment was … “this is OK, but it’s a bit weak for McLean.” To put it into parlance Dave of the store would understand, it’s like a compilation of B-sides. Worthy enough, but not representative of the heights he could attain. No “greatest hits” this one. Until I got to the final short story. “Love Never Ends.”
“Love Never Ends” sees Dave take a side seat to his old childhood baseball coach, and wife. It’s astonishing. It’s not one of McLean’s funnier tales, but it may well be his crowning achievement as a writer and a person. It says in about 14 pages as much about the meaning of life and the Human Condition as many philosophers and theologians have been able to deduce in a lifetime of work and pondering.
So the overall review is, a decent enough set of stories, and a pretty good introduction to the Vinyl Cafe for a newcomer, and if you come to it first, you might be pleasantly surprised with other books in the series you read later. If you like Garrison Keillor, you probably will like Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. But if you want to be moved, touched… made to feel, track down the “Love Never Ends” story from it, at a library, online, while sitting in a bookstore. But have a Kleenex ready.