Beach Reading by Lorne Elliott (Acorn Press, $22.95)
By Stuart Nulman
I have known comedian Lorne Elliott for nearly 30 years. I knew there was a comic talent to watch out from the first time I saw him perform onstage at the Comedy Nest (when he was known as Chris Elliott, but later changed his first name to Lorne, so he wouldn’t be confused with the American comic who shared the same name, and was a regular on “Late Night with David Letterman” at the time), to his yearly appearances at Just For Laughs during the late 80s and early 90s, resplendent with his signature mane of frizzy hair, as he strummed his mini guitar and sang his repertoire of offbeat satirical songs (including my favorite , the rapidly-delivered “The Smallest Thing That’s Known to Man”).
In 1988, I discovered another aspect of Elliott’s comedic talents at that year’s Just For Laughs festival, as he presented his humourous play “Culture Shock”. It centred around the rather likeable Hilliard Philpott and his circle of offbeat characters whom resided in his hometown of Jarvis Arm, Newfoundland. And now more than 25 years since I saw that play, Elliott has maintained that sense of the offbeat, not to mention his ties to Atlantic Canada, in his recently-published novel Beach Reading.
The book takes place on the North Shore area of Prince Edward Island during a summer sometime during the early 1970s, in particular the beach area near the town of Barrisway. The main character is Christian, a university drop out who has memorized the entire Canadian Bill of Rights, and decides to spend the summer camped out on the beach near Barrisway, as he lives off the land by eating PEI potatoes that he buys from a self-serve vegetable stand, as well as locally grown chanterelle mushrooms and the odd raspberry patch. And for entertainment, Christian spends the rest of his time playing his trusty banjolela.
While enjoying the relaxed way of life on the beach, Christian begins to encounter, and for most part befriend, the colorful characters that inhabit Barrisway. This is emblematic with the MacAkern family, led by its blustery patriarch Wallace, who can’t even remember Christian’s name (he ends up calling him “Whoever-the-Hell-You-Are?”). Frustrated with politics, politicians and the federal government (the latter plans to possess their home and evict his entire family), Wallace decides to take matters into his own hands and decides to become the independent candidate for the Barrisway riding in the upcoming federal election. And how does he guarantee a victory at the polls? He decides to pay $5 to every person who votes for him (and good luck to him to see if he could track down those lucky voters in order for him to live up to that promise, especially in the age of the secret ballot).
And on top of that, Christian manages to find a job with the local Parks Canada office, where his boss Barry Rattray is nothing but a conniving, vindictive, untrusting boss; and Christian thinks he has found the love of his life in his pretty co-worker Claire, but later finds out that she is rather indifferent to his humble, sincere overtures.
In Beach Reading, Elliott has woven together a rich comic tapestry of offbeat down home situations with offbeat characters that manage to outdo each other with their own brand of quirkiness. In fact, it’s almost like a Maritimes version of “Corner Gas”, in which the reader likes to find out what happens next to the different inhabitants of Barrisway, PEI, and have a genuine interest that the situations of each character comes to their respective logical conclusion, whether they be comical or not. One prime example is the candidates’ debate between Wallace MacAkern and Robert Logan Head, the way too polished and overconfident Conservative candidate. The way Wallace, who hardly has the political experience and know-how of his opponent, slowly pokes holes into his opponent’s shortcomings and builds upon it to his own triumphant advantage, is a well-crafted, page-turning piece of comic writing. And besides spinning a good comic yarn, Elliott has a keen eye for the environment that surrounds Christian and the people of Barrisway. His vivid descriptions of the PEI landscape that is Christian’s version of paradise reads like a well-written travelogue and spells out the beauty that a Maritime summer can offer.
Beach Reading further enhances Lorne Elliott’s talent as a comic storyteller. With a penchant for good storytelling and a cast of likeable quirky characters, hopefully we can follow the exploits of Christian and the good people of Barrisway in the future from the page to the TV screen.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.