canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Uncle Dirty
by Mike Morey
Escape Media, 2003

Reviewed by Scott Albert

Right from the start, I wanted to read Uncle Dirty. A funny book about Toronto, set mostly in Parkdale - where cheap rent mixes a bohemian bedroom community with the luckless, stalled lives of the poor. Exactly the sort of thing I would like to see more of in Canada - a novel freed from the grasp of academic literature. Unfortunately, Uncle Dirty is unlikely to inspire more of the same.

For a long time, I wondered whether my reaction to the book was more personal than professional. Maybe I was over-reacting, and letting my pet peeves about the world colour my judgement. Eventually, as the weeks past and the review didn't get any closer to being written, I figured - fuck it. I'll just do what all book reviewers do. Make up a bunch of bullshit justifying how I felt about it. I'm sorry, Mr. Morey. I really tried to like your book.

Uncle Dirty reads like a Bruce La Bruce film done by the CBC. Occasionally funny, its satire is mostly a condescending glance at those who make up Toronto's underclass. More specifically; Parkdalians, artists, and students living meaningless lives lacking in Middle Class values. The book's main comedic focus is the absence of "normalcy," that is: money, social standing, and family values. While the poor characters are damned because they lack these things, the rich we meet in the book are damned for an undeserved excess of all three. It's this value filter that drives Uncle Dirty, and leaves me stalled.

It's the story of how Heather Seywell's life is saved by the Middle Class aspirations and values of Peter C. Galloway. Heather is sort of the main character. Since rebelling against her parents and fleeing to Toronto, she lives with her blind uncle Odie and hangs out with various men who want to fuck her. Without her family to anchor her identity (we're led to assume) she's adrift. Each day of the week she works at a different part time job, under a different name, where her obvious artistic talent is wasted on greeting cards and tattoos. She wears all black, greets the world with an attitude, and generally seems happy to be acted upon by the people around her.

I said Heather is "sort of" the main character, because the narrative is moved forward not by the overly passive Heather, but by one of the guys hanging around trying to fuck her - Galloway. Mr. Morey assures us Galloway is a wanna-be writer, but all we see is Galloway's get-rich-quick scheme to sell Heather and her father's artwork. In the end, normalcy is restored when both Heather and Galloway get rich, become successful, and reaffirm their respective lost family units. Heather even puts on red nail polish; that's how complete her transformation is from Toronto psuedo-goth girl to a regular, Middle Class woman. It's a coming of age story without the coming of age - it turns out the world really is that simple.

The other characters in Uncle Dirty have little to do with this plot, and seem drawn from too many late night viewings of The Simpsons, including an appearance by Comic Book Guy.

It's not all bad. Mr. Morey makes very good use of Toronto - like in this bit where Galloway is left stranded by an angry cabby.

Sipho didn't slow down until he reached the end of Cherry Street. It was an industrial wasteland, smattered with low, gray, cinderblock buildings, all closed and dark for the holidays. There were no signs of life, but that didn't mean there wasn't a seedy element lurking in the shadows. When the cab screeched to a stop, Galloway's forehead struck the front headrest. "Thank the heavens, you've reconsidered your bid to slay us both. Now that you're come to you senses, my good man, kindly--" "Eighteen muthafuckah dollahs, kubi umama!" "I beg your--" "Da fare. Eighteen muthufuckah dollah." "Surely you can't be serious? You have not delivered me to my destination. You have not even given me the opportunity to disclose my destination, let alone take me there. Now, I must get to the Franklin--" "Gimme da muthufuckah fare, yaw know what's good foyah. Eighteen dollah." "You can't possibly intend to deposit me here, sir." "Yebo! Yaw betcha muthufackah ass." "I'll be stranded. I'll perish. You'll be responsible for committing murder! You can't be serious." Sipho flashed his yellow eyes, clearly indicating just how serious he was.

Uncle Dirty works on the levels where Mr. Morey's intentions are clear. It is weakest when the motivations seem less intentional. All of the female characters are mostly defined by their relationships with men - objects of lust, love, and the family dynamic. Heather changes herself to fit the needs of the men who give her jobs and want to fuck her. The male characters are most strongly defined by their relationships with themselves, exemplified by the college boy Brad's compulsive masturbation.

It is almost as if Uncle Dirty was never intended for a close read, by Mr. Morey or anyone else. Exposition is often given twice, sometimes on the same page. Or it is contradicted, as in this condensed passage about Heather's relationship with her blind Uncle Odie:

"As she navigated the track through the living room, she began divesting herself of her clothing. Modesty was of little concern to Heather, since Odie was blind and the drapes were never open. But Odie's free hand found her bottom and gave it a squeeze before she could get away."

Heather takes her clothes off because Odie can't see her, but throughout the book she lets him "see" her with his hands?

The book's tone is just as inconsistent as the descriptions of people's motivations, ranging from naturalistic to cartoony, often in the same character. Odie himself oscillates violently from being the voice of reason to scenes where, for example, he's terrified that Fed-Ex delivery robots are plotting to get him.

When you look closely, these inconsistencies jump out from the text. Some were so obvious it made me think, maybe they were meant to be there? Maybe Mr. Morey meant for us not to take him at his literal word, and the opinions formed through the prose's subtext were exactly what Mr. Morey had intended? Maybe the book was a brilliant, subtle satire of Canadian life and I just didn't get it? Maybe it was supposed to be ridiculing the very Middle Class values I accuse it of pandering to? Maybe it's a better book than I am a reviewer? Maybe.

What I do know is that I am guilty of the same crime I accuse Mr. Morey of - viewing the world of Uncle Dirty through a political filter. I just wish I could say one of two things: I agree with Mr. Morey and the book was good, or I disagree with Mr. Morey and the book was good. What troubles me is that - subtle satire or not - I have this image of someone reading this book on the subway and thinking, "Poor people are lazy! Rich people are undeserving of their status! Family is the most important thing!" The three pillars of neo-conservative, Middle Class tribalism that are at the heart of mainstream media. The bohemian artists of Parkdale should be ridiculed not because they define themselves as rejecting these values - they should be ridiculed for their shallowness, pretensions, and elitism. And satirizing the poor is just plain mean. I'm not saying you shouldn't be allowed to do it, I'm saying I'm not going to enjoy it.

So that's what it comes down to. Like I said, I really wanted to like Uncle Dirty, and I didn't. But would I recommend it to you? Let's say this - given a choice between Mr. Morey and Ms. Atwood, I would pick Mr. Morey. At least Mr. Morey tries to make his book fun.

And maybe I'm just too PC for what might otherwise be a fun, if forgettable, book. Maybe.







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