Toronto in the year 1950: abortion is illegal, women routinely die at the hands of alcoholic surgeons and the mob blackmails the survivors. It may not sound like “Toronto the Good,” but there’s still no shopping on Sundays and people need a liquor license just to buy a drink.
Hugh Garner’s Waste No Tears, newly released by Ricochet Books
Véhicule Press’s Ricochet imprint has been releasing out-of-print Canadian crime novels since 2010. So far, Ricochet has released three David Montrose novels starring Montreal’s hardest drinking private eye and Al Palmer’s Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street. Ricochet finally comes to Toronto with its 2014 release of Waste No Tears, Hugh Garner’s “book about the abortion racket.” Hugh Garner is better known for his Depression era classic Cabbagetown and The Intruders, about Cabbagetown’s gentrification in the 1970s.
Before Garner’s literary classics and his 1963 Governor General’s Award for his short stories, there was Waste No Tears, published in 1950 under the pseudonym Jarvis Warwick. It’s about a womanizing alcoholic who winds up caught in a net of seduction and blackmail as he descends into Toronto’s criminal underworld and onto skid row.
As Toronto often does in popular culture, the city went unnamed and unspecified in Garner’s book. By comparison, Montrose’s contributions to Ricochet’s catalogue are proudly explicit about Montreal. Seventy years later you can still point out the apartment building on Cotes-des-Neiges Boulevard that becomes the scene of a murder in Montrose’s Crime on Cotes-des-Neiges. Garner makes a few oblique references to Toronto. The lake and the harbour are the dominant images in the city he describes. Garner’s choice of pseudonym, Jarvis Warwick, is a reference to the Warwick Hotel on Dundas and Jarvis where Garner frequently drank and where he sets Waste No Tears’s climactic (but inevitable) betrayal.
By the novel’s end, the narrator is a broke and homeless lush. He is routinely kicked out of bars and gets arrested for panhandling. He’s jeered at and abused in public as he succumbs to his addiction. In some ways Waste No Tears is an early precursor to Maggie Helwig’s 2007 novel Girls Fall Down. In Helwig’s book, Toronto is struck by an epidemic because of its maltreatment of the homeless, vulnerable, and mentally ill who are pushed off of the streets and into the ravines. By 2007, Toronto has no true skid row to “harbour the outcasts of the city,” though there are still panhandlers in front of the bars and bistros on Front and Jarvis.
In her introduction to Ricochet’s Waste No Tears, Amy Lavender Harris writes “it is Garner’s paperback novels … that reveal how narrow is the line that separates ‘Toronto the Good’ from its seamier shadow. It’s a line drawn precisely along Jarvis Street.” Since 1950, the downtown east side from Jarvis to the DVP has gone from Garner’s “Anglo-Saxon slums” to a checkerboard of gentrified neighbourhoods, public housing projects, and low-rent high rises. However, in the city of Rob Ford and Brian Shin, addiction and crime are perfectly at home in Nathan Phillips Square and in middle class Markham as well as on Jarvis Street.
In 2014, Toronto is more obsessed with its image as a “world class city” than its moral reputation. Ricochet’s release of Waste No Tears comes at a critical moment of Toronto’s self-evaluation. A group called Extend Last Call Toronto claimed in March that, “[a] change would elevate Toronto’s status as a ‘world class city’ and points out that Chicago and New York have 4 a.m. last calls.” Meanwhile, recent exceptions to Toronto’s strict 2 a.m. last call have been made for Nuit Blanche, Olympic hockey games, and New Years Eve. The rhetoric around liquor consumption in Toronto is based on the dichotomy between a wide open, “world class” city and the city’s puritanical, provincial history. As Toronto tries to reconcile its uptight image with the realities of metropolitan life, Garner reminds us that “Toronto the Good” wasn’t any cleaner in 1950 than it is today.