canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Black Teeth 
by Ryszard Dubanski
Signature Editions, 2005

Reviewed by Michael Murphy

It seems the most recent trend in the world of books is the non-fiction memoir (which is the new, sleeker term for “autobiography”), the author’s true-to-life story of how he or she overcame certain obstacles (or failed to do so) and the real, true, heartbreaking results of those actions. These books read like fiction, but they’re not, and this is supposed to keep readers interested, and sometimes it works. But whenever I read non-fiction, I can’t help but wonder why I should care about the author’s completely believable, normal, ho-hum coming-of-age problems, or sometimes the lack thereof. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with writing non-fiction, as long as the story is truly worth telling. In the end, why should I care if little David Sedaris learns to talk pretty, or if Francis McCourt makes it to America? Why does it matter?

When I picked up Rsyzard Dubanski’s Black Teeth, I asked myself a similar list of questions. Because there’s no getting around it: Black Teeth falls seamlessly into the increasingly popular, increasingly innocuous, non-fiction category. It’s essentially a collection of integrated short stories (or “souvenirs”) about growing up as a “DP kid” in Winnipeg’s infamous North End. While its prosody is rather straightforward, the stories offer a unique perspective on Canadian life in the 50s and 60s, as seen through the eyes of an immigrant kid trying to fit in with his all-Canadian counterparts, even if it means trading homemade borscht and pyrogies for Klik and baloney.

Like most collections of non-fiction, Black Teeth tumbles along at an even, realistic pace, with each episodic chapter or story focussing on one particular time and/or theme in the author’s life. Although this method tends toward the dull and the expected (especially near the end when the whole collection begins to fizzle, without any sense of accomplishment or climax) the stories are, for the most part, rich with humour and a sweet, sad nostalgia for a Cold War past, a glimmering vision of “The Peg” that gradually fades to grey as the book comes to its close.

Of the sixteen colleted works (including the post-script), “Black Teeth,” “Fat Girl” and “Cover all the Mirrors” are among the strongest in the collection. “Black Teeth” essentially sets the tone of the work, telling of how a pre-adolescent Dubanski first learned that he was different from the rest of his classmates: his black, rotted teeth (“like lozenges of coal with corrugated edges”) immediately set him apart, symbolizing his otherness in a classroom full of “normal” children. This theme is developed throughout the collection, and is partially used to explain the intimate connection that a teenage Dubanski develops with the “fat girl” in his class, his first experience with love and late-night kissing. In “Cover all the Mirrors,” a more grown-up Dubanski explores the effects of mental illness, creatively interspersed with excerpts from a pamphlet called “At Home with Alzheimer’s Disease”. In this, the penultimate chapter of Black Teeth, Dubanski charts the gradual disintegration of his father’s mind and behaviour, from being merely “cheap, miserly, silent, fussy” (156) to, over a period of approximately two years, losing total control of all bodily functions, becoming completely unaware of his own identity, and eventually dying “untrammelled by consciousness” (165). Here, Dubanski explores the effects of mental illness on both the victim and the people who care for him, and does so with remarkable charisma, sympathy and style.

Of course, not all of these stories develop or instil a sense of appreciation for otherness in a supposedly multicultural society. “Fat Girl” does it to an extent, but most glaringly, “Fool of Cool” seems to promote just the opposite sentiment. Essentially, this story is about a black kid from Los Angeles named Louis. He moves to Winnipeg for a couple of months and is befriended by Dubanski, again because the author thinks they share a kind of collective otherness in Canadian society. He writes that being “a DP kid myself, a displaced person, a refugee, I did know what it was like to be an outsider; at least we had that silent connection”. But it seems as though the connection ends there, for Dubanski completely exoticises Louis’ character, writing that he was “so black that the whites of his eyes seemed unnaturally luminous, like light bulbs”. He also writes that Louis moved “like a big elegant Egyptian cat.” On top of it all, one of the first things he and Louis do together, at Louis’ behest, is to “li-be-rate some clothes, man”. At its best, “Fool of Cool” is an unconsciously ignorant, rather embarrassing portrayal of the only black character in the entire book. At its worst, it’s simply racist. Either way, it was a pain to read, and places a heavy, not so easy to discard weight upon the rest of the text.

From his first day of school to his first day teaching college students, Dubanski examines his own life as a perennial outsider, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but most often normal or “real” results. Yes, this is non-fiction, it is based on a true story, at times it can be a bit substandard, but in the end, the vision is unique, the stories original and well-told. And when it really comes down to it, it doesn’t matter if a book is fiction or non-fiction, true or untrue - as long as it says something worth saying, it’s always worth reading. Black Teeth is, at the very least, worth reading.

Michael Murphy is co-editor and publisher of {epithet}. He resides in Windsor, Ontario, where he just bought a new computer. They gave him a great deal, but he finds his hands are too big for the keyboard, which makes writing reviews a very uncomfortable assignment, so maybe it wasn’t such a good deal after all.






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