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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Juan Butler's The Garbageman, a few notes

Ahhh. Now that the recently held high school reunion is over, back to regularly scheduled reading and blogging. I have to thank - I think - Toronto poet, Stuart Ross, for suggesting a recent read. I have no idea how Stu came upon this novel to suggest to me. I only spoke to him a few minutes at the Ottawa book fair the other week when he said, "Hey, John, have you ever read Juan Butler's The Garbageman?" Not having been acquainted with the work of Canadian novelist, Juan Butler, I made an online book order that evening.

Mr. Ross went on to say something akin to 'that it makes American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis look like mere pranks done at a Sunday-school picnic.' He was right. I just finished reading the ultra-slim, ultra-violent novel last night. It was published by Peter Martin Associates in 1972. I confess, there were parts where I was insanely laughing (I wont tell you at which passages), you know the type of sniggling: where you can't believe someone actually published this stuff - it's so offensively in bad taste - I love it! and other places where I found myself repeatingly muttering, o h - m y - G o d . . . over and over.

From the opening page of the novel:

Tell me, in the anarchist society that you envisage, where all men will be fee, where no one will ever be in a position to impose his will upon his fellow man, where "doing your own thing" will be the norm rather than the exception, where creative leisure - as opposed to material success - will disappear and economic controls will exist on a purely voluntary basis, who will pick up the garbage?

The garbageman.

Along this first-person psychotic narrative, you will meet such characters as Uncle Joe; The Glorious Bubble; Maria Arado (whom also meets an untimely death in ultra-horrific detail); more than a few syphilitic junkie prostitutes; someone named 'Stuart' (not the poet); and finally the kind nurse, Miss Kennedy. There are no chapters in this novel, per se. Its style is a stream-of-conciousness of time and place told in part by a criminally dissociative character: "A Canadian writer. Living in Barcelona on a Canada Council Grant."(p. 53)

If you think that you enjoyed reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, I believe the ultra-violence in Butler's novel pushes the needle that much further on the scale of ultra-violence. I will never have the same image of Bois de Boulogne, France, again.

Ka-Thump! Ka-Thump! Ka-Thump!

Juan Butler commited suicide by hanging himself close to a decade later after the publication of this second novel. He only wrote three books, Cabbagetown Diary, The Garbageman, and Canadian Healing Oil. When my nightmares end I may consider reading his two other books. I urge you to keep this book from reaching the innocent youth, that if they stumble upon it, they would insist on reading something other than the brain-numbing Harry Potter.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


yes mr. macdonald, butler was one of the great canadians, no doubt about it, and an argument could be made that this evidenced greatness has no better example than his second novel, the garbageman, of which you speak so favourably; a book woefully unknown to most and supremely underappreciated for what it is within the context of our national letters, (letters that fundamentally traffick in far more gentile subjects and themes, despite this degree of temperance not being to everyone's taste). with you i also unequivocally put my money on butler, a writer who made it his business to give voice to the near unspeakable, something almost no other canadian writer has ever bothered (had the courage?) to do -- not so successfully, anyway.

the underclassed social realisms of his debut, cabbagetown diary: a documentary, (1970) is also well worth the price of admission, and i would encourage anyone interested in this singular author's point of view to similarly give it a go, for they shall not be disappointed. rarely has toronto been painted uglier; a light it deserves to be seen in at least once to get the real, totalizing picture of the complete city -- and not just the phoney whitewash it prides itself on.

canadian healing oil (1974), bulter's third (and, sadly) last novel took me the better part of 13 years to eventually get around to reading, but i read it last night, (the real reason i am here: to check up on bulter awareness across the world wide web -- this hit came up first, i'll have you know) and i have to say, it may very well be the most hallucinatory canadian novel to ever appear, from that small slew of hallucinatory canadian novels that i'm aware of. rob read and i are reading this book concurrently, a species of study group i guess (i zipped ahead to the finish, he's lagging behind somewhat) and the real reason for this study group is/was the seeming impenetrability of this most disjunctive, disorienting and completely surreal novel, a novel that must be ranked alongside other notable examples of 'famously unreadable' works (think sheila watson's double hook, george payerle's the afterpeople, even greg evason's 'work' -- that ilk.) once the first two butler books are read and one is fully in his court, most find themselves chagrined to have such a difficult time of it getting into his last. canadian healing oil, a far less malevolent yet nonetheless still mystico-psychotic book, is really only for the stout-hearted hardcore fan, as its pure literary experiments will not be to everyone's liking. (its so famously "unreadable" that rob and i are probably among the less than 100 people to have actually read this book in the past 32 years.)

thanks for mentioning juan butler. he's better than almost anyone i can think of whose praises are regularly sung in this country, and there's something wrong about that to me. this little indeed goes a long way... for those of you reading, find these books and dare explore the underbelly of what the c.b.c. and the globe and mail would regularly deny exists.

23 skidoo!

gustave m.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007 7:21:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Butler said...


Having last week been handed a sheaf of letters from the 1960's either written by my brother or centred on him, I also found your little entry via Google. It's gratifying to know that Juan still finds himself read occasionally, it now being forty years since he put Cabbagetown Diary to paper.

In response to Gustave M.'s remarks on the difficulty Canadian Healing Oil presents to the reader, my own feelings when it was being written were that Juan had decided to go psychedelic, as it were. And it just wasn't in him. Rereading it, though, five or six years ago, the work struck me as verging on brilliant and standing head and shoulders above the others. Of course, I can read it knowing something about his own history and, in that context, it displays a perfect and beautiful coherence - although possibly well concealed from outsiders!

More specifically, Juan was born in Stansted, England in 1942 to a very peculiar union of a Spanish woman of what might be best described of the class of rural gentry, and a middle class Londoner of the commercial caste. Brought up speaking English, the family relocated to a very remote region of rural northeastern Andalucia following the end of world war two. By the time they reached Canada in 1949, he had forgotten his native tongue and only spoke Spanish. Between their taking up residence in a tiny agricultural community northwest of Toronto, his language difficulties when faced with children wielding hockey sticks and our parents' lifelong refusal to integrate themselves into the life of what they fundamentally felt were the colonies, it was pretty rough go, by all accounts. The demeaning label of D.P. which was foisted on every accented immigrant to the Ontario of that period was more apt than any of them could have imagined in his case.

Juan was capable of living badly anywhere - Upper or Lower Canada, England, France, Portugal, Spain, Morroco, Mexico, Puerto Rico. By the time he was in his early twenties he spoke four languages fluently. Unfortunately, he was not able to fix himself to, or identify himself with, any of those places. Canadian Healing oil amounts to an autobiography - Leopold Bloom on Jupiter.

The first indisputable sign of the what was to come (as far as I know) was when, at fifteen years old, he took our father's unserviceable American civil war era pistol from its drawer, went down to the Edward Street bus terminal, bought himself a ticket to Buffalo and, on arrival, proceeded to attempt to rob a restaurant cashier. It all eventually came apart in about 1976, under less than clear circumstances, when he was forcibly hospitalized in the Royal Victoria Hospital's psychiatric wing in Montreal following an apparently violent outbreak in a bar. Back to Toronto. In and out of the Clarke. Leaves for Vancouver. Then shows up at my door, babbling inconsolable delusions about events that never took place, at 5 AM following a three day bus ride in three overcoats. Open throated the only bottle of liquor I had and finally got some sleep. There wasn't much left. A hundred and twenty pages of manuscript of no particular merit.

Thanks and best regards,

Charles Butler

Saturday, February 09, 2008 6:16:00 PM  
Blogger PALMERPALMER said...

I am currently reading "A Cabbagetown Diary" . I tried to read it in 1975 but never got to the end as it was from the library. I had never forgotten about it and am currently seeping in the beauty of it.. It's a very personal book to me on many levels... ie. St Johns Training School..and many other tangents ...Thank you for bringing this book to the fore..Blessings

Saturday, June 16, 2012 1:34:00 AM  
Blogger Maxie's Republic (and poetry puree stand) said...

I read both "The Garbageman" and "Cabbagetown Diary" when I was 13 or 14, suburban Toronto in the 1970's. What on earth my local library was thinking when acquiring them, I'll never know, bu "The Garbageman" in particular traumatised me. Not enough to stop me reading his other novel.

Is it even possible to find his last work?

Many thanks, I thought I was the only one who had been scarred by these fascinating works, which in retrospect put me in mind of Céline.

--Max Métrault, Toronto

Friday, July 17, 2020 10:00:00 PM  
Blogger Opusv5 said...

I read "Cabbagetown Diary" in 1981 after being intrigued by it in The Double Hook Bookstore in Montreal. It's a strong book. I'm currenty re-reading "The Garbageman," which, among other good points, has excellent descriptions of Barcelona and the excitement of Barrio Chino in a basically 24/7 city. The violence in the book is visceral and must have been part of the author though, I imagine, never truly enacted.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022 4:26:00 PM  

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