Daniel Perry’s Hamburger (Thistledown Press, 2016).
One night out of every week you can reliably find me wandering around somewhere between Bathurst and Dufferin as I wait for a literary event to start. I enjoy these walks—with a couple of hours to spend between work and the reading, and no fixed destination in the meantime, I circle like an extra in somebody else’s film. Occasionally I recognize a person, a group, or a cluster of people I’d already passed earlier, and doubtless cause them to wonder if the world’s Hanna-Barbera background (tree, house, mailbox, tree) has cycled back to its beginning again. As with walking, so with writing; if I can manage a Shandean callback at the end of this piece I’ll be well pleased. Anyway, last month I was stalling for time on leafy side streets in anticipation of the launch of Hamburger, Daniel Perry’s debut book of short stories. After visiting The Central by mistake (wrong venue), I found the top floor of Victory Café crowded and boisterous. I sat with André Babyn, who I know from my days in a PhD program I have since amicably parted ways with; at the time, he was working on his MA in Creative Writing. The conversation turned to our non-literary work, and we wondered what the ideal day job for a writer might be. I suggested museum docent—wouldn’t it be soothing to stroll through well-air-conditioned exhibits and tell curious visitors about the dietary habits of the woolly mammoth? But I’ll have to finish this line of thought later—narratologically speaking, the event is starting.
Artist and writer Shari Kasman was the first reader of the night. She told us that she’d originally planned to read something she had written herself, but at the last minute decided not to. Instead, she explained, she would read to us from a thematically-appropriate book she conveniently already had at home: a 1958 cookbook called 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger. (A vegetarian for the last 25 years, Kasman got the emphatically non-vegetarian tome from a bookswap.) Let me say that this reading was one of the funniest I’ve ever seen, ever, and I’m really hoping that there will be repeat performances for everyone unlucky enough to have missed it the first time. Kasman’s arch delivery and effortless comic timing made the already-pretty-weird material word-by-word hilarious in a way that this little piece can’t remotely do justice. She began with an ekphrasis of the drawing on the book’s cover: a white-suited, floppy-hat-bedecked cartoon chef, heavily involved in some sort of meatball business. She turned to the title page and said, “Here he is again … bigger.” I was already dying. Then we learned the history of hamburgers: originally a dish in Estonia and other points in the Baltic, ground beef patties made their way to the German port-city of Hamburg and, from there by way of sailors, to New York, just in time for the famous 1904 World’s Fair at which hot dogs and ice cream cones also became popular. “So, three good things,” Kasman said. All of this history had been rendered by the cookbook’s author in the same sort of upbeat 1950s prose that was used to convince America that More Doctors Smoke Camels than Any Other Cigarette.
The recipes themselves were exhausting to think about: a Mexican Goulash that serves 70; another recipe that, if I remember right, was called “Meatballs for 50.” And why, Kasman asked, would you need to cook 365 days-worth of these massive servings? Our imaginations teemed with images of endless meat, a field of sizzling friers, dozens of culinary foreheads beaded with stressful sweat. I guess this book was meant for the armies of countries with beef surpluses? Maybe the funniest part was a very specific set of commandments for cooking burgers. For one thing, you need a two-pronged fork (“Who has that?” Kasman asked). Moreover, it’s apparently very important that you don’t squish down on the frying burger with your spatula. Looking out at the room, Kasman deadpanned, “I bet you all do that.” Guilty as charged.
Daniel Perry is the author of Hamburger and Nobody Looks That Young Here.
André was next, reading an excerpt from Evie of the Deepthorn—the novel manuscript he was working on when we knew each other at the university. I’d never heard him read from the book before, so I was very excited to get the chance to. He prefaced his reading by mentioning something he loved about Perry’s fiction: his attention to the working lives of teenagers at their first jobs. Labour—whether over a sizzling patty, in a museum hallway, or behind a counter—was shaping up to be the theme of the evening. André’s piece is an account, told in the voice of a boy who works with his friend in a video store, of a strange, decades-old Canadian Western film (the titular Evie) that the two clerks love to watch during quiet moments on the job—like a tiny secret society of enthusiasts. The narrator carefully relates the fluke historical circumstances (a special governmental granting body) that allowed the artsy, low-budget movie to be made, and lovingly describes the film’s opening scene: an isolated house among tall, northern trees, rendered by a cinematographer who would later work on The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The boy in the video store draws on the film’s awkward, tender aesthetic as he plans his own project: an ambitious documentary about his school. Afterwards, we were all curious to know if Evie was real; it felt emphatically so.
Daniel Perry gave a shout-out to his friends from work, who normally see him doing totally different things, before reading a story called “Rocky Steps.” The piece enters the world of a woman named Crystal who works as a security guard at the Philadelphia Museum of Art despite having trained to be a police officer—the force’s institutional racism and sexism have denied her a job. Her boss, who insists on being called “Mr. Framingham,” hovers like a pedant, and she exists in a constant state of low-level tension with a conceited Penn undergrad who leads guided tours of the art. Her precocious son, Gregory, is as eager to be a motivational life-coach for his mom (drawing on the Rocky films he watches when visiting his father) as she is to foster his interest in the museum she works at (rather than the Stallone statue outside it). There was humour in the story—related to Mr. Framingham especially—but what struck me most about the piece was its fundamental decency and respect for the experiences and aspirations of its central characters. This kind of narrative decency isn’t always a given in writing about working people. As I mentioned earlier, I’d suggested that being a museum docent would be an ideal job—so it was a special kind of cosmic coincidence that Perry’s story was about a museum employee’s daily workplace struggles. His story effectively called me on the uninformed guff I’d said earlier in the evening, which is, I think, one of the many reasons why we need stories, books, and nights like these.