Black sheep of the tribe

Amanda Hale (right) digs for buried treasure in her WW II English family history to tell the “fictional memoir” of a socially shamed father and the impact it had on his wife and children. FULL STORY

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#224 Opportunity Knox twice

December 19th, 2017

Opportunity Knox: Twenty Years of Award Losing Humour Writing

by Jack Knox

Victoria: Heritage House, 2017.

$19.95  /  9781772032086

Reviewed by Bill Engleson

*

Jack Knox, columnist of the Victoria Times-Colonist, is known for his incisive humour.

His proposed names for new B.C. Ferries: the Spirit of Jobs Sent to Germany, the Service Reduction Princess, the Coastal Community Collapse.

He proposed, as a name for a new library in Victoria, Booky McBookPlace, Library McLibraryface, and Dewey McDecimalface.

Reviewer Bill Engleson likens some of Knox’s columns to bird droppings on a car windshield. “You can almost hear the wipers flapping as you flutter from chapter to chapter.”

Knox’s first book, Hard Knox: Musings From the Edge of Canada, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Now the humourist, like the postman, has knocked twice. It’s a pretty safe bet he’ll be returning. – Ed.

*

Opportunity Knox, Jack Knox’s sophomore book, is a compilation of seventy-six (or thereabouts) columns written by Knox for the Victoria Times-Colonist, starting in September 1998 with the delightfully anti-cat, pooch-frippery essay, “Cat-astrophe,” containing, in passing, this biting double-barrelled blast of Lower Mainland municipal mockery, “I have long thought of Coquitlam as being like Surrey, only without the charm.”

He ends in the spring of 2017 with an undated yet apparently fresh treatise. “Nasty-grams” contains a raft of “encouraging” notes from disgruntled and occasionally witty readers who offer artless articulations such as “Good luck with your shitty column.”

Critics aside, Jack’s missives range widely in topic from the frequent joys of his brand of dog-friendly journalism (yes, he prefers dogs over cats) to occasionally melancholic moments like his 2015 column, “Tweet.Retreat.Delete,” in which he laments the Canadian penchant to be “sanctimoniously offended” by pretty much everything.

In his introduction to Opportunity Knox, he offers an unadorned assessment of his writing credo: “Most of what I write isn’t funny. Or to be precise, most isn’t meant to be funny.” Immediately after he avows — possibly as an offering to Articles, the Greek God of Journalism (pronounced art-i-kleez, thank you, Joe Heafner)[1] — that “I’m a serious journalist, damn it; have been for forty years.” He caters to “Politics. Crime. Angry people with purple faces.”

It is difficult for this reviewer to imagine that many folks will read Opportunity Knox and become “angry people with purple faces.” Knox’s writings are a lunch buffet, a sundry smorgasbord. All he aspires is to be a writer for the Average Joe and to prove that humour can be “written by someone who is as common as bird crap on a windshield.”

You can almost hear the wipers flapping as you flutter from chapter to chapter.

For instance, in a chapter from 2016, “F-Bombs Away,” Jack ponders our collective decline into free-for-all profanity, and in the very next chapter, “George Dubya’s Hurricane Di’ry,” we are cavalierly flung back to 2005 and Katrina without so much as a f***ing parachute.

In another saga, “Shaken and Stirred,” though the title suggests a rumination on James Bond, Jack offers a testy rebuke to the incessant earthquake warning announcements we receive on the west coast and provides his own enchantingly extreme response to the end of the world scenario suggested by The Big One.

Though many of Jack’s tales are fanciful and almost hallucinatory imaginings, some are quite real. Jack is a player with real skin in the game. For example, while Opportunity Knox makes no reference to naked bike rides — a stellar moment in Hard Knox — Jack does peddle a bike tale this time around with “A Pebble on the Tour de Rock.” As with much that is Knoxian humour, Jack tears a self-deprecating strip off himself at every turn — including a blood-curdling head-over-heels tumble near Nanaimo, of all places, that takes him out of the tour — whilst still providing a seriously supportive commentary on this annual fundraiser for pediatric-cancer research.

Another essay that touched an emotional chord for me was “The Drawer where Dad kept his War.” This early (1998) column is a lovely set piece of family memoir. There is barely a salty-teared chuckle to be had here. Rather, it is a powerful ode to his father, exemplified by this heartfelt lament that, “My God, he was only a kid.”

Leaving no stone unturned, Jack even opines on the dreadful turnip. Buried within an almost reflective essay from 2008 on being thankful and kind, entitled “They had me at Amen,” is a clear statement of Jack’s views on the sorry root. Whilst waiting for his mother to finish saying grace, and sincerely concerned that his potatoes might get cold if she didn’t move it along, he confesses that, “It was, however, a good opportunity to slip turnips to the dog while no one was looking.”

Knox’s latest collection is a rambling, animal-festooned (both real and imagined) dog-bone crunching chewy frivolity. For most of Jack’s aficionados, this will serve them well. However, for a few — and I regret that I am one — his herding cats’ quality could have benefitted from a more organized presentation.

Jack Knox at a book signing in Kamloops for his first book.

Unlike Hard Knox, Opportunity Knox contains mild deficiencies in two key areas, characteristics which made Hard Knox a delightfully easy, rib-tickling trail to follow: to wit, a table of contents (TOC) and an index.

Hard Knox spoiled me. I like lists. I generally don’t make them, but I do appreciate them. The TOC in Hard Knox offered the reader a classic sense of order. The essays were arranged by months. There was a flow, an almanac’s ease. One felt safe and secure, much like the sense of comfort obtained from a weather report delivered by a competent television meteorologist.

The reader will often find him or herself trapped in Jack’s fertile twenty-year stretch of imagination, somewhat like a miniaturized Raquel Welch and her crew found themselves in 1966’s Fantastic Voyage.

Jack also admits that he has “tweaked old columns here and there to make them a little more relevant.” We can thank the 45th President of the United States for that. As Jack trumpets early on, “If you think it odd that a piece written in 2005 takes a poke at Donald Trump, well, get over it. I’m not going to pass up a chance to take a cheap shot at Trump, even if it involves time travelling.”

More than just content to tweak time, Jack channels Trump in a 2016 column. In “It’s Me, Donald Trump,” he risks life and limber when he has Trump opine, “Nobody has as much respect for Canadians as me, Donald Trump. Even Victoria. Nice city named after a terrible queen. Nasty woman.”

Quibbles (or kibbles) aside, Opportunity Knox takes us on an honest, sometimes dizzy, and entertainingly unostentatious circuit of Knox’s off-the-wall west coast world.

Enjoy the trip. Opportunity Knox is an exuberant, courageous read.

*

Bill Engleson is an author and retired child protection social worker. Born in Powell River, raised in Nanaimo, he spent his first year of life trapped aboard his parents’ leaky fishboat. He resided in New Westminster for most of his adult years, retiring to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction, both long form and flash, essays, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in the sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. He self-published his first novel, Like a Child to Home (2013); his second book, Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul (Silver Bow Publishing, 2016), is a collection of humorous literary essays. He is working on several new projects including a prequel to his first novel entitled Drawn Towards the Sun; a mystery, Bloodhound Days; and a collection of home grown, satirically tinged essays, DIRA Diary: Tall Tales of Democracy in Traction. His website/blog is www.engleson.ca

*

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Reviews Editor: Richard Mackie
Reviews Publisher: Alan Twigg — BC BookWorld / ABCBookWorld / BCBookLook / BC BookAwards / The Literary Map of B.C. / The Ormsby Review
The Ormsby Review is a new journal for serious coverage of B.C. literature and other arts. It is hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn.

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[1] http://sticksandshadows.com/greek/index.html

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