A comic coming-of-age story with a pronounced sting in its tail: the Canadian author’s fourth novel, first published in 1994 immediately preceding his international success,The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
Narrated in retrospect by Torontonian Henry Prendergast, it’s a chronicle of Henry’s career as a child TV actor, begun in 1967 with his enactment of the morally contrasting apian presences “Bee Good” and “Bee Bad” on the instantly popular kiddies’ show Rumpus Room, conceived, written, and produced by Henry’s take-charge mom Audrey. Johnston’s genius for understated deadpan hilarity works wonderfully in reactive descriptions of Rumpus Room’s inane preachiness—especially those spoken by Henry’s saturnine father Peter, a would-be serious novelist who maintains an amused distance from his wife’s busy conquest of the upstart medium. For example, his caution that Henry as “Bee Bad” is “a role model for evil people everywhere . . . [and that should Henry commit] any act of decency or kindness, . . . those who looked down to me would be forever disillusioned.” Celebrity, modest fortune, and sheer misery at Henry’s school follow—as does further success when Audrey maneuvers 13-year-old Henry into starring on the Philo Farnsworth Show, which imagines the youthful adventures of the eponymous inventor of the first television set. Audrey’s manipulations extend to Peter’s stalled career, and give the increasingly unhappy Henry “this fleeting notion of my mother fixing everything, staging my entire life without my knowing it.” Still, this is a comic novel: rifts in the Prendergast family fabric are mended, and Henry achieves a kind of liberation in a weird climax at Maple Leaf Gardens, attended by disciple-like Philo admirers who have named themselves “Philosophers.” It wraps things up neatly, and it’s a hoot.
A bit overlong, but, still, another beguiling display of the varied wares of one of the most entertaining and likable of contemporary writers.