My Relation to No Relation
“Dick … Dick.”
“Is there a Dick ?” the barista shouts.
“We’ve got a grandé nonfat latté for - a Dick.”
Smirks. Snickering sounds. Throat clearing.
“Uh, uh … that would be me.”
Given the double-entendre awkwardness, you might ask - Why doesn’t he use a pseudonym at Starbucks?
But, as I will explain later, I stick with “Dick” out of the same sense of familial duty and respect that bound struggling writer and underwear heir Earnest Hemmingway to his given name. Earnest is the protagonist in No Relation, the second book to win a Leacock Medal (2015) for Toronto novelist and PR guy Terry Fallis.
In the book, Earnest suffers with a name that evokes that of the Nobel Laureate and thus invites unfortunate comparisons as well as suspicion and complication into his daily life. But the not-famous and double “m” Hemmingway dismisses suggestions that he shed his troublesome name. It came to him through his father, another Earnest Hemmingway and another eldest male in the line of underwear manufacturers. Earnest, our No Relation hero, is the fourth one and efficiently referred to as EH IV in business and family circles, but elsewhere he wears the yoke of confusion and comparison.
The book tells the intertwined story of Hemmingway’s effort to extinguish expectations that he will take over the family firm while also trying to shake off the ghost of Ernest M. Hemingway, the better known writer, whom lesser known Earnest - with an “a” - blames for his own writer’s block.
The first thread encompasses Earnest’s more deserving, business-minded, but overlooked younger sister, and the latter story line prompts him to take a Michael Palin Hemingway Adventure tour in the hope of confronting and exorcising that famous-author ghost.
The double-barrelled journey carries the reader along, and Fallis sprinkles his usual self-deprecating, gentle humour throughout along with inoffensive, but quirky characters and some cremated remains.
Fallis employs lots of standard humour writing tools, but not in excess or in concentration, and it may be this orchestration of the parts that gives his work its broad appeal. He, for example, has a few similar-sounding episodes of slapstick like the bar fight in Key West, ejection from the DMV in New York, and the spilling of those ashes in Paris that seem nicely spaced to jolt the reader and break up the gentler, unhurried humour of the larger stories at play.
Interestingly, Terry Fallis, as expressed through Earnest and in his own talks, is not Hemingway’s greatest fan, finds terseness cold, and enjoys ameliorating words, explanatory dialogue, and clearly attributed quotes.
Rather than a fault, this inclination might be at least one reason books by Terry Fallis are so accessible and so darn popular.
Aside from the humour and easy read, No Relation can be seen as a reference for family relationships – I think it makes a good Father’s Day gift as the book spins around both father-son and father-daughter dynamics – and as Will Ferguson suggests it’s an exploration of the question of “Who are you really?”
But, for my part, the most interesting feature of the book and the one that makes it Leacock Medal worthy lies in the pages that remind us of the value of friendships and how fragile connections can grow into strong Mariposan communities. Earnest finds his in a support group for people who share names with the famous and struggle under the perceptions these names carry. So we have a Mario Andretti who can’t drive, a Mahatma Ghandi with a temper, and others with varying degrees of similarities with and differences from their namesakes.
These sub-incongruities make up a funnier whole than the sum of the quirky parts.
At first, it also seems funny that such a vaguely connected subset of humanity might need a support group. But our names infiltrate every corner of our lives including the purchase of a coffee and certainly speak to the whole of our experience more than dart-throwing, chess-playing interests that underpin most clubs or associations.
I’m not ready to form an Association of Dicks, but I feel a natural affinity for people with that name as well as people with hyphenated, multi-lingual surnames knowing that they give of their time to spell out the words anytime I.D. is checked or credit cards are used. I also have empathy for Earnest Hemmingway and his reluctance to abandon the familial banner.
My parents wanted a Daniel – Oh Danny Boy – son. But before the christening, my mom’s brother, my Uncle Dick, dropped by to see the baby. When asked about intentions for a name, my dad, always a joker, said “Oh, we think we’ll name him after his Uncle Richard – so he’ll always be – Rich.”
Dick didn’t say much, but heading out to his pickup truck to drive home, he stopped, turned around, and came back into the farm house with moistened eyes to say how touched he was. My parents had no choice but to follow through with what was intended as humour and christen the baby in Dick’s honour.
So, I keep Dick as the short form and eschew variations like Rickie, Richie, or Ricardo and try to accept any awkwardness with Earnest Hemmingway –Terry Fallis - No Relation - sanguinity.
Still, I’m glad that some Starbucks baristas have started asking for initials only.
I had one semi-famous “Earnest Hemmingway” kind of experience.
In the fall of 1985, I was charged with delivering some sensitive documents to the Prime Minister’s Office in the Langevin Block. After checking in at the reception desk, I was told that the PM’s Chief of Staff Mr. Roy wanted to see me. I walked into the big office down the hall, sat down in the chair across from his desk, and waited to hear him speak. He looked up, squinted, looked over at the door, looked back at me, squinted again, and finally said “can I help you?”
I introduced myself, explained why I came to the PMO that day, and said that I was told he wanted to see me. He got up and went out. The receptionist returned to explain that the Chief of Staff thought “Dic Doyle,” the former Globe and Mail Editor and now Senator was in the building. As I left, Mr. Roy, possibly feeling as embarrassed as me, called me back and asked if I would like a couple of tickets to the Grey Cup in Montreal. I watched the B.C. Lions beat Hamilton in the Big O a month later and wondered how I might use this “Dic Doyle” thing again.
“Hey, maybe you’ll meet him someday,” my wife said. “That should be funny – Dick meet Phallus - Phallus meet Dick.”
“You know it is not spelled that way, don’t you ?” I corrected.
“Don’t be such a dick.”Writing Exercise
Write a short story about a Canadian humour writer named Stephen Harper Leacock.