Mister Nice Guy

Stuart McLean's kind-hearted universe

Photograph by Derek Shapton
Photograph by Derek Shapton

There’s a sushi place in Toronto’s Kensington Market that Stuart McLean has been known to frequent, when he’s not on the road performing his popular Vinyl Cafe live show to sold-out crowds across Canada. It’s not a fancy place at all, just one of the city’s many hole-in-the-wall sushi spots offering cheap, satisfying fare, although the chef is celebrated by regulars for making a mean spicy roll. One night earlier this year, McLean was sitting there by himself, munching away and reading The New Yorker, when his meal was interrupted by a dishevelled older man at the bar who was giving the owner a hard time. “How do I eat this stuff? ” the Troublesome Customer grumbled loudly. “Do I dip this in here? I don’t understand this food!”

With his natural neighbourly instincts, McLean stepped into the ruckus and started to explicate, in a relaxed, non-technical way, the mysteries of maki and the subtleties of sushi. “That’s soup,” he said. “You dip the sushi in the soy sauce. And if you want it hot, mix in this green stuff”—“green stuff” rather than “wasabi,” just so the fellow wouldn’t be further intimidated.

The Troublesome Customer attended to McLean’s advice and, after a bite, murmured, “Hmm. Not bad.” But before McLean could bask too long in the success of his off-the-cuff cultural diplomacy, the Troublesome Customer added, “You know Western civilization is in decline when the barbarians have better food than us.” Without another word, McLean returned to his seat and the solitary comforts of The New Yorker.

Stuart McLean is the great bard of Canadian niceness, a man for whom kindness is not, as it is for many, simply a tepid default mode, a way of getting along in the world with the least difficulty, or a set of conventional rules to discard when we can get away with it. Rather, in his moral universe, niceness is a living force, a Tao, a way of being—a constant, energetic striving to repay the unearned good fortune of our existence by treating all those around us with respect. It’s not always easy being nice, and many of McLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories revolve around the dilemma of a character—usually the hapless family man, Dave—struggling to be decent, even when it might be more satisfying to be selfish or surly.

In his encounter with the Troublesome Customer, McLean displayed some of his most striking virtues: his kindness, his forbearance, his expansiveness and openness to the world, his willingness to engage on an equal footing with anyone he meets. But we can also discern the limits of niceness in this story: when confronted by malice and perversity, niceness is easily flummoxed, as McLean finally was by the Troublesome Customer. There are barriers in this world—hurdles of culture, economics, ideology, and language—that niceness can’t always triumphantly jump over. Which is why, despite its anecdotal pleasures, the tale of the Troublesome Customer wouldn’t quite work as a Vinyl Cafe vignette. Goodness isn’t always victorious in the world of Vinyl Cafe, but it has a far better batting average in McLean’s stories than in real life.

However, dismissing his work for being excessively agreeable perhaps does a disservice to the man, who has a strong claim to being Canada’s most beloved storyteller. To curtly write him off is almost like rejecting Canada itself, a nation sometimes caricatured for its over-the-top politeness. There is a kind of glib, reflexive cynicism in assuming that anyone who speaks on behalf of modesty and family values must inherently be naive or phony.

As McLean notes in his new essay collection, The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks, his mentor Peter Gzowski “decided it was his mission to uncover the best of Canada, the people and places, to seek them out and introduce them to the rest of us.” McLean’s stories are a way of keeping the Gzowski mission alive; in our changing culture, the program might be the only living incarnation of the Gzowski spirit.

There are depths to Vinyl Cafe stories that many listeners appreciate but no literary analyst has ever explored. It’s pleasant to skate over the surface of McLean’s stories, but we should not forget that the smoothness we are gliding on covers a deeply felt but rarely examined philosophy of life.

Since 1994, Stuart McLean has been telling stories about warm-hearted people on his Vinyl Cafe radio show, which airs every weekend on CBC. Originally, the characters in his yarns were varied, but within a year or two Vinyl Cafe’s storytelling segment transformed into a radio sitcom focused on the adventures of a Toronto nuclear family, parents Dave and Morley and kids Sam and Stephanie. The family is not given a surname, although Dave’s mother is Margaret MacNeal—a near-anagram of “McLean.”

The Dave and Morley stories are told in a variety of tones, but the dominant modes are the farcical and the lyrical. Farce often arises from the antics of Dave, a well-meaning paterfamilias but also a bit of a doofus, full of impractical schemes and a stubborn unwillingness to listen to reason. You can get a quick chortle from Vinyl Cafe fans by reminding them of Dave’s various misadventures: the time he rented a hotel room to cook a Christmas turkey, or his run-in with a duck, or his experiments in toilet-training the cat. These episodes are highly stylized in their ridiculousness, reminiscent not just of sitcoms, but also of cartoons such as The Simpsons. Not surprisingly, there was talk in 2004 of adapting an animated show from the Vinyl Cafe stories.

But farce is only one of the notes McLean hits: he often varies the pitch with unexpected outbursts of lyrical reverie, effusive meditations on love, family, and the goodness of life. Like all families, his fictional clan has its share of problems. Dave’s easygoing slothfulness sometimes rubs against Morley’s need to impose order (older women in McLean’s stories almost always exhibit an overactive maternal superego). When she was a teenager, Stephanie could sometimes be snitty, and she had her share of fights with her younger brother, Sam, whose boyish enthusiasm and fresh-faced naïveté often lead to misadventures that parallel his father’s. But whatever quarrels and misunderstandings the family might have, they always come together to realize how much they need each other. Many of the Dave and Morley stories can be described as fables of reconciliation, with the farcical disruption serving as the comic pretext for the eventual lyrical reunion.

In “Tree Planting,” from the book Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe (2006), the pampered, city-bred Stephanie has a tough time roughing it in the bush, but eventually acquires the necessary hardiness to work in the Canadian wilderness. The story ends like this: “She came over a hill and saw the water sparkling in the sun. She couldn’t believe it. She took off her clothes and jumped in, naked. Miles from nowhere. Alone in the great boreal forest. Amazed at herself. But most of all, amazed at life.” Stephanie is reconciled here not with her family but with nature, indeed with creation itself.

McLean’s new book opens with this quote from E. B. White: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” This sentiment, expressed in many variations, is the great running theme of McLean’s work.

When McLean was a boy in Montreal, he had the unusual habit of pretending to be a preacher, delivering ad hoc sermons to his parents’ friends. In a way, he remains a frockless clergyman, a parson in the guise of a popular entertainer. He is a deeply religious writer, but not in any narrow, sectarian sense. Rather, he articulates an unshorn natural piety that even unbelievers can accept. At the heart of all religion lies a feeling of gratitude for the simple and mysterious fact that we exist, that for reasons unknown to us we’ve been brought into this world and allowed to enjoy fellowship and earthly pleasures. It is perhaps no accident that his show airs on weekends, traditional days of rest and meditation. A century ago, many Canadians listened to homilies in church on Sundays, a practice some still follow. But now we can stay at home and hear secular sermons on CBC.

As the avatar of Canadian wholesomeness, our very Deacon of Decency, Stuart McLean would seem to be above criticism, or at the very least uncontroversial. In fact, he’s a remarkably polarizing figure, although in a typically muted Canadian fashion. If you bring up Vinyl Cafe at a dinner party, you’ll get two distinct responses. Very quickly, his fans will chirp in with praise, their faces aglow with remembered enjoyment of the Dave and Morley stories. But other diners, although silent, will be twitching unhappily, their teeth grinding away. Privately, they’ll tell you they can’t stand his syrupy stories.

McLean has a popularity it takes a trained statistician to measure. Every week, a million or so listeners tune in to Vinyl Cafe, and his books have sold 1.4 million copies in Canada alone. He could easily fill a large auditorium in virtually any English Canadian city or town.

Thomas O’Grady, the PEI poet, gave Stories from the Vinyl Cafe to his wife, saying, “Read this book, and you’ll understand where I come from.” As O’Grady explained to an interviewer, “What emerges from his stories that is so true to my growing up on the Island is a sense of decency and decorum in people’s relationships with [one another], the anxieties people feel about doing the right thing and not overstepping boundaries.”

This hurricane of popular acclaim tends to drown out naysayers, but careful searching reveals a hardy band of diehard McLean haters. In the Globe and Mail, John Doyle described the annual “Vinyl Cafe Christmas Pageant” special as “treacly, contrived, pat, tedious and tortuously smug in its bourgeois Canadianness.” On September 4, 2004, CBC listeners were amazed by what they heard on Paul Moth’s Sunny Days and Nights show: blunt, freewheeling mockery of McLean. An envious character notes that Vinyl Cafe is a scam where the Canadian “people pay for the taping and then on top of that the Corporation produces the show for [McLean], a show that is essentially just promotion for his books. Jesus, he must pull in a fortune.” Another character suggests that it might be profitable to read “a few homespun stories celebrating those old-time family values,” but this idea is rejected because, as the McLean wannabe says, “I’m a journalist… I’m not a panderer.”

So who is right: the army of McLean fans who revere him as the voice of Canada? Or the less vocal but no less passionate critics who regard him as a purveyor of sentimental pap? One way to answer these questions is to step back and look at his literary pedigree.

In his memoir Shut Up He Explained, the formidable critic and short story writer John Metcalf, a forthright elitist and the polar opposite in every way imaginable of Stuart McLean, notes that there is a “minor but persistent strain” of populist and folksy writing in Canada. Metcalf cites W. O. Mitchell, Hugh Garner, and W. P. Kinsella as examples of this tradition, and he could have added Stephen Leacock to the list. McLean has mentioned several of these writers, notably Leacock and Mitchell, as his admired precursors.

Metcalf sees the folksy tradition as the enemy of serious literature. “Folksy, it seems to me, wants to turn back the clock,” he argues. “Folksy wants to praise the ‘simple,’ wants to renounce ‘literature’ and revert to ‘good old-fashioned story-telling.’ Folksy wants to undo modernism; folksy wants to banish ‘story’ and restore ‘tale.’ And in the process it makes language cruder, simpler, less demanding, and in its pandering to ‘approachability’ betrays a hundred years of very sophisticated thought, feeling, and effort.”

Even if we allow that there is a great deal of truth to Metcalf’s account of the folksy inheritance, there are still grounds for admiring McLean as a writer. The first point to note is that his primary medium is radio rather than prose. He is really an oral storyteller, and his books, although carefully reshaped as collections, serve as mementoes of the original experience of hearing the story. As the literary theorist Walter Ong has taught us, oral storytelling, a tradition that runs from Homer to Garrison Keillor, has its own rules, distinct from prose narration. Prose is a finicky medium, superb for minute observations (think of Nabokov on butterflies, or Virginia Woolf on flowers) and the exploration of our quirky internal life (Joyce and all his followers).

Oral storytelling isn’t equipped to deal with the minute or the internal. The very nature of telling a story aloud means you have to keep the plot moving; you have to paint in broad strokes; you have to appeal to your listeners’ sense of the familiar and the expected; you have to repeat certain distinguishing epithets (in Homer, Odysseus is always clever; in the world of the Vinyl Cafe, Mary Turlington is always Dave’s nemesis). If the lyrical strain in Vinyl Cafe is rooted in the oral tradition of preaching, the farcical humour and flat characterization of the tales echoes the oldest narrative tradition we have, the storyteller who wants to get a few laughs by appealing to images everyone knows: the mulish husband, the overprotective mother, the kids who won’t listen to their elders.

Much of the appeal of the Dave and Morley stories comes not from their actual contents, but from the voice of the storyteller: McLean has one of the great radio voices, always shifting tones, by turns quivering and confident, mildly sardonic and soulfully earnest. Jimmy Stewart is an obvious influence, but McLean has crafted a style of folksy elocution that carries his own tangible twang.

It could be argued that he is not wholly innocent of modernism. There’s a tradition of popular storytelling that emerged in The New Yorker in the 1930s, from such writers as E. B. White and James Thurber, that can justly be called vernacular modernism. These writers domesticated techniques like Joyce’s epiphanic endings for wry, homespun tales, a practice McLean continues to this day.

In the early 1990s, Stuart McLean had a memorable encounter with a prostitute. He was interviewing her for a segment of the radio show Morningside. “She told me about her best trick ever,” he recounted to the Toronto Star in 1995, “the time she had been hired by this gay guy to go home with him for a weekend at Christmas and pretend to be his fiancée, so his parents wouldn’t know he was gay.” He wasn’t able to use the story for Morningside, because he didn’t tape the conversation and he lost contact with the prostitute, but he fictionalized it for an early Vinyl Cafe story called “Polaroids.”

“Polaroids” can be found in the first edition of Stories from the Vinyl Cafe (1995), but when the book was republished in a tenth-anniversary edition McLean took the piece out and replaced it with a typical tear-jerker about Remembrance Day and the importance of honouring the First World War. As he explained in the introduction to the reissued book, “[‘Polaroids’] is not a story I would tell on the show these days. It’s not that the story is particularly explicit or that I feel like disowning it. I like the story, but it just doesn’t seem to fit comfortably in this book anymore.”

There’s no denying that the world of Vinyl Cafe is a severely delimited one. The Dave and Morley stories are about family life, but the tougher issues that spring from marriage and child rearing, notably infidelity and teen sexuality, are dealt with in an extremely gingerly fashion. McLean often constructs coy allegories to tackle these topics. “The Hairdresser” is nominally about changing from one stylist to another, but it also serves as an extended metaphor about adultery. “No Tax on Truffles” is on the surface about Sam’s love of exotic food, but running through it is an anxiety about the teen’s budding sexuality. In the story, Morley finds a “thick, glossy magazine” hidden in Sam’s mattress; it turns out to be a copy not of Penthouse, but of Epicure. Similarly, it is easy to read “Sam the Athlete” as a tale about the difficulty of coming out of the closet (or accepting your son’s gayness), although on the surface it’s simply about how Sam joins a girls’ field hockey team.

Considering how raunchy popular culture is in the twenty-first century, McLean’s dainty treatment of adultery and teen sexuality feels remarkably quaint. But perhaps the oral (forgive the pun) nature of his art explains his reticence. Reading books is by necessity a solitary pastime, but the oral storyteller performs for a crowd. In my experience, people often listen to Vinyl Cafe as a family, gathering around the radio or playing the CDs in the car on long drives to the cottage. Certainly, people go to McLean’s concerts en masse. When he reads his stories, he knows he has an audience that ranges from grandparents to very young children; by using allegories and winks, he can touch on sexual topics adults will understand without embarrassing the young ones (or perhaps vice versa). In that sense, McLean is a true throwback, one of the last real family entertainers in the English-speaking world.

His role as a family entertainer perhaps answers the question of both his remarkable popularity and his ability to set some noses a-wrinkle. We live in a time when the family is in flux. Among those close to me, I can’t think of anyone who has the sort of tightly wound nuclear family Dave and Morley enjoy. Everyone I know either belongs to an extended immigrant clan, or an unevenly quilted family. Yet millions of people like Dave and Morley exist, people who listen to Vinyl Cafe and see a very slightly exaggerated image of their lives. Wanting to know more about these Daves and Morleys of the world, I can enjoy Vinyl Cafe as an anthropological exercise that gives the same pleasure as reading fiction from Japan or Brazil. Others who don’t live within the cozy confines of nuclear familydom often have a more adverse reaction: for them, the Dave and Morley stories are paeans to an utterly alien way of life.

Canadians famously don’t like to argue over contentious issues. But if we were a country that could tolerate debate, there is a major argument to be had about Vinyl Cafe and just what, exactly, it says about us.

This appeared in the December 2010 issue.

Jeet Heer
Jeet Heer is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine. His most recent book is Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays & Profiles.
Derek Shapton
Derek Shapton is a regular Walrus contributor.