15 February 2010

At Long Last Lunacy




The Last Canadian
William C. Heine
Markham, ON: Pocket Books, 1974

In the opening chapter of The Last Canadian, protagonist Gene Arnprior leaves his suburban home and speeds along the Trans-Canada toward Montreal. A to B, it's not much of a scene, but the image has remained with me since I read this book at age twelve. The novel was the first in which I encountered a familiar landscape. Of the rest, I remembered nothing... nothing of the sexism, the crazed politics or the absurdity.

Penned by the editor-in-chief of the London Free Press, it begins with late night news bulletins about mysterious deaths in Colorado. Gene recognizes what others don't and takes to the air, flying his wife and two sons to a remote fishing camp near James Bay. As a virus sweeps through the Americas, killing nearly everyone, the Arnprior family live untouched for three idyllic years, before coming into contact with a carrier. As it turns out, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger... Gene lives on, but must bury his wife and children.

The Last Canadian is a favourite of survivalists everywhere. Someone calling himself Wolverine writes on the Survivalist Blog:

The immediate response reaction is instructive. Second there are the North country survival techniques. Third there are psychological factors of being a survivor in a situation where most others die. And there is more, dealing with post-disaster situations, though I won't go into that because it would spoil the book for you.
I won't be as courteous. Spoilers will follow, but first this complaint: the title is a cheat. Gene is not "The Last Canadian" – there are plenty of others – rather he considers himself such because his citizenship papers came through the day before the plague struck. Gene is an American who came north for work. He'd enjoyed his time in Canada, had made many friends and "had come to understand the Canadian parliamentary system, and agreed that it was far more flexible and effective than the rigidity of the American system of divided constitutional responsibility."

Reason before passion.

Is it then surprising that, there being no parliament, he's drawn back to the United States? Heading south, Gene resists all invitations of the Canadians he meets, whom he considers "eccentric" because they've chosen to stay put, supporting themselves through farming and whatever might be found in local shops. There's much more excitement to be found south of the border.

First, he stumbles into a Manhattan turf war – but that's hardly worth mentioning. As a carrier, Gene succeeds in killing a number of Soviet military types in Florida. In doing so, he becomes Enemy #1 of the USSR. They send frogmen assassins, set off bombs, plant land mines, and lob nuclear missiles in his general direction, but still Gene beetles on. When a Soviet submarine destroys his Chesapeake Bay home, killing the woman he considers his new wife, Gene seeks revenge.

Though he has no evidence, Gene comes to blame the Soviets for the plague (in fact, it's a rogue Russian scientist), and dedicates himself to infecting the USSR. He begins with a short wave radio broadcast directed at the Kremlin: "If the Russian people were half as smart as your literature says they are, they'd have tossed you out long ago. Because they haven't, I have to assume they're as stupid as you are."

You see, because they are stupid, Gene has decided that all citizens of the Soviet Union should die. He cares not one bit that the plague will spread beyond the borders of the country, killing the rest of Asia and Europe, never mind Africa.

It's all crazy, but the reader is not surprised. Though Heine spills an awful lot of primary colours in an effort to paint the man as a hero, concern has been growing for quite some time. Remember when he hit his wife, just so she'd understand the gravity of their situation? How about when he'd threatened to tie his young son to a tree and whip him until he couldn't stand – all because he'd fallen asleep while tending a fire? Then there's that little glimpse of Gene's psyche provided when his new love, Leila, tells him a horrific story of being kidnapped, beaten and raped repeatedly by a psychopath:
"You can't imagine the things he made me do. And he killed a man to get one of his girls."
Gene felt another chuckle welling up. In the few years he'd spent in Korea and Japan, he'd read about most of the sex things there were to do, and tried a few himself. He stifled it, however, recognizing her revulsion.
Yep, pretty funny stuff... and don't forget to add that boys will be boys.

Intent on killing billions, Gene makes his way up the Pacific Coast, dodging Soviet and American forces, before crossing the Bering Strait into the USSR. Hundreds of Americans and an untold number of Russians die as a result. His journey and life are finally ended by a clusterfuck of nuclear strikes – Soviet, Chinese, American and British – which obliterate the Anadyr basin.

Lest the reader agree with the Soviets that Gene had become a madman, Heine is at the ready to set things right. You see, Gene's actions were perfectly understandable; the British prime minister tells us so.

We're left with the image of radioactive clouds composed of the people and terrain of Anadyr. They drift across Canada, sprinkling poisoned dust over the land. Some settles on the graves of Gene's wife and children:
In time the rains washed the radioactive dust down among the rocks and deep into the soil.
Something of Eugene Arnprior, who had suffered much and had done more to serve mankind than he could ever have imagined, had come home to be with those he loved.
Thus ends what I believe to be the stupidest Canadian novel.

Trivia: Published in the US under the snicker-inducing title Death Wind and in the UK as – go figure – The Last American, in 1998 the novel was turned into something called The Patriot starring Steven Seagal. There he is below as Dr Wesley McClaren, a small town immunologist doing battle with Montana militiamen and the lethal virus they've released. Sure sounds like Gene Arnprior could help out, but he's nowhere to be found. Maybe he's up on Parliament Hill taking in the House of Commons. Who knows? The Dominion to the north is never mentioned, nor is the Soviet Union, for that matter. Truth be told, The Patriot has as much to do with the novel as it does with good cinema.




Object: A typical mass market paperback. The cover photo is by Jock Carroll, who also served as editor of this and other paperback originals published by the Pocket Books imprint. The final pages advertise more desirable titles in the series, including:
FESTIVAL by Bryan Hay. A modern novel which reveals the rip-off of drug-crazy kids by music festival promoters.
THE QUEERS OF NEW YORK by Leo Orenstein. A novel of the homosexual underground.
THE HAPPY HAIRDRESSER by Nicholas Loupos. A rollicking revelation of what Canadian women do and say when they let their hair down.
Access: The copies listed for sale online are expensive. Where do survivalists get their money? Third printings, seventh printings, none rated as anything better than Good condition, they range from C$50 to C$85. Interestingly, a Sudbury bookseller stands out for offering the best copy ("Very Good") at what is by far the lowest price (C$20). Seems hard to beat... and yet just last week I found a copy for 99¢ in our little town's Salvation Army Thrift Shop. I'll happily send it – gratis – to anyone who wants the thing (email on my profile page).

24 comments:

  1. At first I thought I was going to have to get this one, as an apocalypse fan, but it quickly became apparent that I could give this one a miss. From the title/cover I was hoping for something more John Wyndham/John Christopher-ish, not some gung-ho loony claptrap. The wildly wrong tone of that last paragraph deserves some sort of anti-award.

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    1. Giving this one a miss is a real shame. The last Canadian is a really great novel that has been worth several re-reads.

      Terrible blog about it on this page.

      It'll be hard to get a copy though. It ranges from $65 in poor used condition up to multiple thousands in new condition. It's been published under two worse names though and those can be had in used condition for $20-30. Worth every penny. "The last American" or "Death Wind" are the other names.

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    2. I agree, Anon, it would be a shame to give this one a miss. But I've got to ask why you think think my criticism so terrible. Is the title not a cheat? Is the plot not nonsensical? Is it wrong to take our hero to task when he chuckles about kidnapping, torture and rape? More to the point, am I wrong in thinking Gene Arnprior unhinged?

      I stand by my opinion that The Last Canadian is the stupidest Canadian novel. If you have a more deserving candidate, I will read it with hungry interest.

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    3. You're wrong in assuming this detracts from the tale. Would you rather it followed some sanctimonious farce of a human rather than someone obviously cracking under the strains of an absolutely extraordinary situation? Human beings don't chuckle about the macabre? Have you ever even been on the internet besides this rant about holding fictional characters to absurd political correctness standards? He's seemingly the most rational of decision makers at the start and most irrational by the finale, it's not difficult to follow.

      P.S. I'll take that copy if you still have it :P

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    4. What are you suggesting I’m suggesting “detracts from the tale”, Anon? The tale itself is as silly and nonsensical as any I've read.

      I’m glad we agree that Arnprior becomes unhinged; it’s something so few readers recognize.

      I wonder when the insanity set in. When he hit his wife? When he threatened to beat his young child? Human beings don’t chuckle about kidnapping, torture and rape, Anon. A mentally ill person might. Perhaps I shouldn't criticize. Not very PC of me, is it?

      (What did Arnprior try out in Korea and Japan, anyway?)

      That Arnprior loses his mind does make for a more interesting novel. A post-Apocalyptic tale about some sanctimonious farce of a human would’ve been unbearable.

      “Have you ever even been on the internet besides this rant about holding fictional characters to absurd political correctness standards?” you ask. Of course, I have - and if you look at other posts, or even reread this one, you’ll find your characterization baseless. Hell, I think Humbert Humbert is just about the greatest literary creation of all time.

      Seems almost unfair to mention one after the other, which is why I’ve dropped a line here to return to Arnprior. He's the best realized character in the novel. He may have “done more to serve mankind than he could ever have imagined”, but he couldn’t save this from being the stupidest Canadian novel I've ever read.

      Highly recommended.

      P.S. Sadly, Anon, the spare copy I offered was claimed years ago. Just as well, really, I wouldn’t know whom to address it to.

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  2. I think John Wyndham (or John Harris) can rest in piece... nothing here to challenge The Chrysalids as the finest novel set in a post-apocalyptic Canada.

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    1. I love The Chrysalids, that said though this novel isn't too far behind in post apocalyptic fiction. I'd place The Giver between the two on my list of the top 3.

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  3. You do know that "The Happy Hairdresser" has me written all over it...the question now is "how to get a copy?"

    JAW fan

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  4. JAW fan,

    I see that Abebooks currently lists eleven copies of The Happy Hairdresser for sale (ranging in price from US$2.99 to US$35). A word of warning, the American edition - also published by Pocket Books - has all Canadian references removed.

    Don't ask how I know this.

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  5. As long as the Canadian references removed have nothing to do with Patsy Gallant, The Mad Dash, The Friendly Giant or Mr. Dress-Up...That would just be blasphemy!!!!

    JAW fan

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  6. Oops! Mr. Dressup (no dash)...how positively un-Canadian of me.

    JAW fan

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  7. Considering the author's occupation, I'm assuming all references to Resdan were removed.

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  8. Ah, Mr. Dressup. I made a reference to the "Tickle Trunk" somewhere the other day and only later, in the silence that followed, did I remember that I was not among Canadians.
    My children have a cousin (on their mother's side) named Sam. Whenever his name comes up, I tell them, "She used to have a man... the man's name was SAM! He was the ultimate anti-hero!" Blank stares ensue.
    Why isn't there a Canadian thriller about SAM!

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  9. Any book about SAM would defy categorization. A thriller, yes, in that it features the ultimate anti-hero. But let's not forget SAM's girl, Melody, and her supernatural smile that could "light the city skies at night". She was also able to dance her way into a man's heart, steal it... and yet the man would live on!

    Why did she stay?

    Sadly, the video provides no clues.

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  10. A link to the video for Melody! (I spent a long time looking a few years ago.) The internet has come of age at last!

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  11. Okay, I'm watching the video right now. Two things. One: Lou Reed's Take a Walk on the Wild Side can kiss Boys Brigade's ass right on the crack and Two: Brian Busby was the lead singer of Boys Brigade?

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  12. True, we had the same haircut, but it seems our tastes differed greatly when it came to clothing, music and interpretive dance.

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  13. I love this novel > its just a book !

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  14. I also read The Last Canadian many, many years ago and forgot most of it, but your review made me laugh out load (aka lol). I desperately want to know how you know the Canadian references in The Happy Hairdresser were removed.

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    1. I'm glad the review amused. The Last Canadian is such an odd book in that it's by turns unintentionally funny and unintentionally disturbing.

      To answer your question about The Happy Hairdresser, I read about the changes in an old William French column (Globe & Mail, 5 Feb. 1974: 13). Mr French begins: "A funny thing happened to a Canadian book called The Happy Hairdresser when it crossed the border into the United States. Suddenly it was de-Canadianized, and all references to Canada were eliminated. Even the blurb on the jacket - 'The book in which Canadian women let down their hair' - was removed."

      You've reminded me that I tracked down a copy (Canadian) years ago, but still haven't got around to reading it.

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  15. Oh.My.Goodness. I can't quite believe what I just read. Yup, Arnprior is a total whack-job. (Local slang for utterly unhinged, noted in case this term has obscene meanings elsewhere. Which it very well might.) And you're right, HE'S NOT EVEN CANADIAN.

    Stupidest Canadian novel ever - I'll second that motion. But strangely fascinating... (And what's with all the sex? And I want to know too - what strange practices did our "hero" indulge in whilst in Korea? On second thought, I don't really want to know.)

    I was expecting something John Wyndham-ish. Called that one wrong!

    So bad it's (almost) good. Must give Heine points for keeping things rolling right along. No time to waste on plausible details!

    Great review - thank you.

    Oh yes - mine was a bargain, too. Paperback in excellent condition (cover rubbed but interior tight and clean) - 75 cents Canadian at a little used book store one town over. What is that, like 50 cents US at our current exchange rate? Bargain!

    One of a kind, for sure. At least, one fervently hopes so.

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    1. Indeed, strangely fascinating - which is why I've been keeping an eye out for Heine's second (and, sadly, last) novel The Sea Lord (a/k/a The Swordsman). You'd think that living just forty or so minutes from London, I'd have found it by now.

      Nope.

      Today, after reading your comment, I gave in and ordered a copy online. Could it be stupider still? I just have to know! And I'll let you know.

      One last thing: If you haven't seen it already, you'll thank me for pointing out Grady Hendrix's review > here. 'Tis brilliant!

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  16. Yesterday, Legends Used Books, Kamloops. B.C. : William C. Heine's The Swordsman, Bantam paperback with 2 bare-breasted babes on the cover, flanking a muscular dude in a loincloth, poised for who knows WHAT kind of action... First few pages are brilliantly awful, as expected. Can't quite face this today, but I'll keep it near the top of the stack to tackle soon. I promise to write about it when I've read it, as a companion piece to my The Last Canadian review. Cheers! (Oh yes, set me back $3.99. I didn't even flinch, though I did tuck the book under a more sombrely-jacketed hardcover in my pile.)

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    1. I'm experiencing buyer's remorse. Last month I bought a copy of the PaperJacks edition. Titled The Sea Lord, the cover is nowhere near as accomplished or, um, promising. It's a few books from the top in my reading pile. Should I be moving it up?

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