It’s been 10 years since The City Man, Toronto writer Howard Akler’s first and only novel, was published. The story focuses on a ring of pickpockets operating in Toronto’s Union Station in the 1930s. I remember being impressed with the high level of the prose, and considering it a notable literary debut. As I wrote in these pages, Akler’s “spare poetic style bears affinities to the poetic prose of Michael Ondaatje as well as the hard-boiled detective fiction of ’30s crime writer Dashiell Hammett.”
I felt confident that the talented Akler would follow up with another distinctive work. Well, it took a heck of a long time for the proverbial other shoe to drop – in the form of the non-fiction essay Men of Action.
I’m pleased to report that Men of Action meets my high expectations; indeed, in late October it was awarded the memoir-autobiography prize in the 2016 Canadian Jewish Literary Awards. According to the succinct back-cover description, the slender 126-page book is “an essay on consciousness, patrimony, old crime films and the desire to write.”
On the surface, Men of Action is a memoir of the writer’s (and his family’s) long bedside vigil for his father Saul as he struggles to recover from complex brain surgery. Written as a series of tight vignettes and meditations, the story (yes, there is a story) opens with the son shaving his comatose father; and soon enters the realm of medical reportage and the literary terrain of, among others, Oliver Sacks and Norman Doidge. (A lyric by Leonard Cohen comes to mind: “Some girls wander by mistake/into the mess that scalpels make.”)
Akler briefly discusses the remarkable discoveries of trailblazing neurosurgeons Harvey Cushing and Wilder Penfield; their explorations and mapping of the temporal lobe and other areas of the cerebral cortex; and similar topics related to our understanding of the human brain, which may be the most highly organized bit of matter in the universe. These intellectual forays seem like welcome distractions from what must have been a tortuous bedside vigil.
As Saul drifts in and out of his coma, Akler investigates the definitions of various mental states such as vegetative and minimally conscious. We are given minute details of Saul’s progress as he slowly emerges from one state to another, signalled by simple movements and gestures, eventually by more readily apparent signs such as eye movements and a squeeze of the hand. His family is encouraged and amazed when, 66 days after surgery, Saul says his first words.
Because he and his father used to watch old detective movies on television, Akler explores the subject to good advantage, interweaving the detective motif into the narrative on several levels. Because his father was an accountant and he a man of letters, the writer characterizes him as a man of numbers and himself as a man of words. But now the man of numbers is also largely without words, and Akler struggles to understand his inner world as he questions whether it’s even possible for anyone to really know what goes on inside another person.
In the midst of discussing his father’s ailments, he also relates his own mental ailments. Years ago, Akler suffered some disorienting mental seizures, the effects so minor at first he barely noticed them; then two generalized tonic-clonic seizures in the street that caused him to be rushed to hospital. Another attack came seven years later, after which, upon questioning, he gave out information about himself that was two decades old: he gave his boyhood address, said he was a journalist although he had not been one for years, and failed to recognize his girlfriend of seven years.
Here he ventures into literary territory charted by fellow Toronto writer Howard Engel, creator of the popular Benny Cooperman mystery novels, who has written of his more recent struggles with aphasia, a debilitating mental condition that caused him to forget how to read and to recognize alphabetical letters on the page. Akler’s health issues also help to explain why he took so long to publish anything after The City Man.
In this memoir purportedly about his father, Akler gives us much about the writerly process. He describes his own struggles as a writer and his fascination with, and expropriation for literary purposes of, the cityscape his father once used to inhabit (so evident in The City Man). He also discusses the differences between fiction and non-fiction, even treats us to explanations of how he turns raw entries in his notebooks into finished prose by reworking them to allow the sentences “to breathe.”
It seems totally relevant when Akler quotes the writer and critic William Gass from his essay, The Book As a Container of Consciousness, noting that “the ideal writer must replace his own complex awareness with its equivalent in words.”
Men of Action charts a downward path into disassociation, dissolution and that other D-word (spoiler alert) that rhymes with “breath” but actually means the cessation of breath. Just as Victorian writers were obsessed with deathbed scenes, modern Western writers, particularly those of the so-called “boomer” generation, seem increasingly obsessed with disease and mortality. Or is it just my imagination, something I’m more aware of now that my own mortality beckons? In this dark province of literature, Men of Action seems a paragon of the genre.
And what about that title? It seems highly satirical, given that one of the subjects of the story is essentially comatose and the other a highly meditative observer: nothing like the hard-boiled heroes of old detective movies. As a counterbalance to the prevailing mood, Akler hits some bright notes towards the end when he mentions the emergence of new life. He also reveals that he’s been working for some years on a second novel. As the saying goes, rewards do sometimes come to those who wait.