canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Howard Akler

Howard Aklerís novel The City Man (Coach House Books, 2005) is a punchy mix of pulp fiction, crime noir and prototypical Canadian literary fiction. Itís set in Toronto in 1934, with the city mired in the Great Depression. A gang of pickpockets are on the loose in Union Station and at centenary parade celebrations, among them the saucy Mona Kantor. Star reporter Eli Morenz takes on the story, digging into the pickpocket underworld to reveal the intricacies of the trade and falling for Mona in the process. Morenz and Kantor have to walk a fine line Ė one to keep his sources private, the other to stay on the street and out of the grasp of the cops who view the pickpockets as a scourge.

The novel is exceptional because Akler peppers the prose with pickpocket lingo: "We used to work the hotel hustle, yíknow. King Eddy, Royal York. And we angle this bates one day. A jug touch for sure, donít even have to fan the guy to know heís fat." The vernacular takes some getting used to but once you settle in, it innovatively adds authenticity to the tale and you bounce right along with it.

Matthew Firth conducted this interview electronically in October 2005.

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The novel has great pace. Short, sharp chapters. Sparse descriptions. Punchy, dialogue. It moves quite quickly. Why?

I wanted a breathless kind of book, one with small meticulous details mixed in with the larger swirl of events.

Coach House Books is known for publishing innovative books. Would you call your novel innovative, if so, what makes it innovative?

I donít know if Iím doing anything real new here.

I have to ask about the speech used by the pickpockets, the lingo of the street of the day. How did you research that and make it ring so true?

The pickpocket lingo comes from a great book called Whiz Mob, by David W. Maurer. Maurer was a linguistics professor at University of Kentucky who specialized in the argot of various "sub-cultures", such as pickpockets, moonshiners, drug addicts, and con men. The movie "The Sting" ripped off Maurerís stuff and, I think, never credited him.

Your descriptions of pickpockets are similarly meticulous Ė every small gesture and twitch is described beautifully, artfully. Whereíd you get this knowledge and how did you make it sound so plausible?

Again, Maurerís book. After reading it, I began trying to break down all these little actions that go on in a crowd. Try it! Wander in the middle of a crowd and imagine lightly running your hands over a total stranger, locating and stealing a wallet, all in a matter of seconds. Itís an amazingly physical task, fast and precise. Itís really a gentle art. Especially combined with such wild slang. Pinch a poke, bang a souper, plant your prat. These phrases all sound so sexually charged but the theft itself is a whisper.

Even though I grew up much later than when The City Man is set, I remember being warned by my mother to watch out for pickpockets on the bus, downtown or at Hamilton (where I grew up) Tiger-Cat football games. But I canít remember hearing much about pickpockets in the past twenty-five years or so. Is pickpocketing a lost art/crime? A crime of an older, simpler era, like the one described in The City Man, perhaps?

Pickpockets do seem kinda antiquated and although Iím sure it still goes on, I never heard many modern whiz stories, until last year when some guy was snapping them up in a Bay Street food court. But the thief was just sitting beside his marks, not actually getting them in motion.

The characters drive this book. Eli and Mona, though from different sides of the tracks, are easy to empathize with. Why do you think these characters are so easy to identify with, despite the fact theyíre not from this era?

I think their concerns are pretty universal. Theyíre horny, theyíre anxious. Mona is growing a little beyond her "family" of pickpockets. Eli is concerned about his job and his marbles.

Eli and Mona get it on, which is a little bit surprising. And it happens so fast. Is it just the close collaboration around the newspaper stories or was there something else that threw them together into bed?

They generate a little heat, I guess, and in a slightly unstable time, who knows what can happen.

Mona is a confident woman sexually; you donít disguise this at all. She masturbates, fucks a man to later rip-off his wallet and fingers Eliís asshole at one point. This might take some readers aback; associate this sort of bold sexuality as a more contemporary characteristic. Why was it necessary to add this layer to her character, for Mona to be so courageous in the sack?

I donít know if bold sexuality is a modern characteristic or not. Iíd say hearing about bold sexuality is a modern characteristic. And I like the idea of Mona as a physically intuitive woman. Especially bounced off Eli, whoís a brooder.

In a way, the novel portrays Toronto as a bit of a hick town in 1934, with the exaggerated hubbub over the pickpockets from the media and the police force. Compared to, say, the level of organized crime going down in Chicago and New York at the same time, the crimes in The City Man seem small potatoes. Whatís that say about 1934 Toronto? About how Toronto might have changed or not changed since 1934?

Toronto back then was more of an outwardly-dainty town, true. But that just pushed the juicy stuff a little deeper underground. We were known for our liquor and gambling it seems. Drugs and prostitution were as common here as any other city of its size. Violent crime, then as now, drew most of the headlines.

Early in the book, thereís a labour protest over unfair wages. There are also references to shortages and suffering common to the Great Depression. But these larger concerns are dwarfed in the novel by the pickpocket racket. I realize the pickpocket racket is the central story but I also got the sense that one reason the city got in such a flap about the pickpockets was to divert attention away from more serious injustices of the day. Can you comment?

Yeah, I wanted to give a feel for the time and place without writing one of those "During the Great Depression" kinda things. I wanted it to be more expressionistic.

And the flap is really a small news story that gets out of hand. The Star back then was a funny paper, pushing progressive causes like motherís allowances but also in love with cheap sensationalism, like todayís Sun. Crime sells.

TDR: Thereís an anti-Semitism stewing under the surface of the novel. Is this reflective of Toronto at the time? And why didnít you make this facet of the story more prominent?

As with the Great Depression, I wanted there to be a whiff of anti-Semitism, but nothing that hits you full on. That would take away from the gist of the book.

Were you trying to shatter the stereotype of "Toronto the good" in some way? Or at least poke fun at it?

I donít think we were all that good back then. I hope not. Anyway, my Toronto wasnít that way.

 

Matthew Firth is a husband / father / worker / writer / publisher / editor / centre-ice man living in Ottawa.

 

 

 

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