BY MELANIE CUTTING
Local writer and humorist Ross Murray (former editor and owner of the Stanstead Journal, frequent contributor to CBC radio’s “Breakaway”, and a regular columnist for the newspaper you are currently reading), has written a novel. Although writing the book was not exactly a walk in the park, getting it published was clearly the hardest part of this exercise, and the resulting trials and tribulations have provided fodder for many of his weekly Record columns.
Ross has previously published two collections of writing culled from his columns: You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You? and Don’t Everybody Jump at Once. The Catch 22 of having a novel published, though, is that until you have actually published a novel no publishing house is very interested in your work. So Ross, like many before him, resorted to the kindness of strangers— as well as friends and family— to “crowd fund” the money required to self-publish his first novel. And for this we, the reading public, should be grateful. I am a big fan of humorous writing, especially that of American author Dave Barry, and Ross’s columns have always reminded me of Barry’s style, i.e., very, very funny. But could Ross successfully transfer his satirical humour to the novel format as Barry did? Well, the short answer is “Yes.” Here is a small sampling to whet your appetite:
Jemima MacNaught was trying not to look at the mayor’s chest hairs. She was staring so hard at his eyes and not at his chest hairs, which were right there, just at the edge of her vision, waving in the breeze like silver beach grass on the flesh-toned dunes of the mayor’s naked chest. “Hello, Jem,” they called to her. ‘Look here. Look down here at us. Down here on Pectoral Beach. La-la-la…”
Described on the back cover as “Sunshine Kvetches of a Cranky Town”A Hole in the Ground takes place in a small Canadian town, not unlike Stanstead. It features several endearing characters, notably plucky 30-something reporter Jemima MacNaught (and kudos to Ross for selecting a woman as his central character); ambitious and unscrupulous town mayor Conrad Lemon; crusty but lovable small town newspaper owner Leon Hubacek; hunky fireman Boxer Ducharme, Jemma’s boyfriend; and Julian Ames, the young naturalist who arrives in Beaverly not to explore the almost-famous sinkhole, but rather to focus his attention on the local turtle species.
Sprinkled throughout the novel are clever wordplays on names of local businesses and buildings (my personal favourite is the Corey Hart Centre for Continuing Education) designed to “up the cuteness ante” and attract tourists. As well, there are brief and hilarious forays into the history of Beaverly, originally called Beverly, but subsequently infested by Canada’s favourite rodent, hence the name change. The story itself is engaging and takes several surprising turns along the way, as we get to know how the history of the town has affected the present. How did the sinkhole get there, and will it get any bigger? What could possibly cause a beaver stampede? What secret is former mayor Rasimus George hiding? What’s become of the missing Mrs. Lemon? How big does a crisis have to be to warrant the term “disaster”? What will it take to finally attract a Tim Horton’s franchise to Beaverly?
Stylistically, the chapters are wide-ranging: straight third-person narrative; “archival entries” from The Beaverly Modicum newspaper and CBC radio; marked-up drafts of newspaper articles; transcripts (an art form unto themselves) of Beaverly town records manager Bernadette Poulin; hand-written to-do lists; and finally, correspondence among the major characters.While there is a fully-developed plot line, I’d say that the primary reasons for undertaking A Hole in the Ground are to enjoy the interactions among the characters expressed in such an amusing way, and to revel in the peculiarities of the Canadian small town. (On the negative side, I must admit that it took me a few days to finally realize that the photo on the book’s cover was more than just an algae-covered stick, despite the carefully placed red circle, which I mistook for a stylized coffee cup ring.)
Now that the hurdles of publishing and launching the book have been successfully straddled (ouch!), the equally daunting tasks of publicizing and marketing A Hole in the Ground are well underway. Without the backing of the publicity “machine” of an established publishing house, getting the work out there and known has been nearly a full time job for Ross Murray, but one he handles with his signature sardonically funny outlook.
So, to coin a phrase, buy local, and support the efforts of your hometown, hardworking scribe. Trust me, you won’t regret it. At 273 pages and priced at $18, the novel is available at the Townshippers’ Association offices in Lennoxville and Knowlton, as well as at local booksellers such as Black Cat Books, and on loan from the Lennoxville Library.
(This column was originally published in The Record, on November 4th, 2016).