31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 18: “Girl on the Subway” by Crad Kilodney

May 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Concrete Forest: The New Fiction of Urban Canada

Concrete_Forest_New_Fiction_of_Urban_CanadaIf you lived in Toronto in the 1980s and early ’90s, you couldn’t help but be familiar with Crad Kilodney, a solitary, grumpy, rumpled figure who stood outside the Royal Ontario Museum or the University of Toronto or the Stock Exchange, wearing a hand-lettered sign on a piece of cardboard around his neck, and selling DIY chapbooks with titles like Putrid Scum and Lightning Struck My Dick. Jay MillAr, the poet and publisher of BookThug press in Toronto, refers to Kilodney as a “literary terrorist” whose books “were great because they undermined what greatness was supposed to be.” Kilodney’s friend Sturart Ross concurs, writing on his Bloggamooga blog:

Crad Kilodney, so far as I can tell, has had very little influence on literary Canada. I suspect he is a pariah in academic circles, and certainly commercial circles, and those are powers that determine lit-taste. But through his street-selling, and through the hand-selling of Crad’s books by Charlie Huisken and Dan Design at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Crad inspired a lot of young people who were disgruntled about CanLit and had no interest in Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and the other superstars. He encouraged a few other writers to self-publish and stand in the streets, including Arno Wolf Jr. (pen name for Timothy Weatherill), Lillian Necakov, Michael Boyce, Mark Laba, and me. He encouraged people involved in DIY — whether they were making books, or zines, or music cassettes.

In this sense, Kilodney was ahead of his time, predating the Internet’s purveying of broad access to the means of publishing production by almost two decades. In 1991, he ran afoul of the law, which charged him for selling his goods without a license, becoming, as Martin Levin points out in The Globe and Mail, “the first Canadian writer ever prosecuted for attempting to sell his own work.” (Levin also recounts a delightful anecdote I’d forgotten: to prove that the CanLit establishment was clueless, Kilodney sent famous stories by Hemingway, Chekhov, and others into a CBC literary contest with pseudonymous author names attached. Every one of the stories was rejected.)

Girl on the Subway was one of the few books Kilodney published with a (relatively) mainstream press; the collection appeared with Black Moss in 1990. Hal Niedzviecki included the title story in his 1998 anthology of short fiction focused on and emanating from the Canadian urban centres that have become home to the largest percentage of the country’s population, a statistic that marks a fairly recent reversal of the Canadian urban-rural divide.

“Girl on the Subway” is, as far as Kilodney’s fiction goes, relatively restrained and surprisingly tender. It tells the story of an unhappy man on the cusp of a breakup with his girlfriend, who prevents a young woman from committing suicide in the Toronto subway. Returning home on the subway from his girlfriend’s one night, the narrator spies a blonde girl in conversation with another, darker-skinned girl, “maybe East Indian or from somewhere in the Caribbean.” After the other girl exits the train, the blonde’s body language changes so dramatically that the narrator concludes she is harbouring an unrequited love for her travelling companion. When the two get off at the same station and it becomes clear that the girl is contemplating throwing herself onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train, the narrator intervenes.

The encounter between the narrator and the blonde girl is awkward and tentative, and ends on an anticlimactic note. “I think I’ll just grab this cab,” the girl says after the two have emerged on street level. “Thanks. I know you meant well.” Meaning well does not assuage the narrator’s feeling of responsibility for the girl, or inculcate in him the notion that he has had some positive effect on her life, though he tells himself that at least he kept her from topping herself.

“Maybe, maybe not,” says Ted, the narrator’s friend, to whom he relates the story about the girl on the subway. “Maybe she went and did it anyway or still plans to. You’ll never know.” This sense of hopelessness, not to say nihilism, pervades the story, which examines subjects of decay and failure in life, in love, and in work.

Ted is a writer who has caused a rift with his brother by publishing a story based on their relationship. This allows Kilodney to indulge in some of his patented, curmudgeonly literary criticism:

I considered Ted a brilliant writer, much too good to ever be commercially successful. His devotion to his writing was the thing that kept him going. He cared about it more than anything or anyone else, and he would become very angry if anyone suggested that he “write to sell.” I recall one occasion when we were introduced to an editor for a big publishing house, and this fellow said to Ted, “Why don’t you write something that’ll make you some fast money so you can sit back and write your more literary stuff?” And Ted looked this guy in the eye and said, “Why don’t you have your daughter turn a few tricks to earn money for her wedding?”

It is difficult not to read Ted as a stand-in for Kilodney here. The author gave up writing and peddling his fiction in the mid-1990s after receiving an inheritance; he packed it all in and became a day trader. There was something in Kilodney’s makeup that would not allow him to continue trying to toil in a business he believed was corrupt and degraded.

Kilodney died from cancer last month at the age of 66. His death was largely eclipsed in the media and the public mind by the deaths, around the same time, of Alistair MacLeod and Farley Mowat; Kilodney himself would likely have found this typical. His refusal to play the CanLit game by the establishment’s rules probably ensured that, as Ross suggests, his impact on Canadian literature will be minimal. However, he did manage to inspire an entire generation of DIY publishers and rogue writers who still believe that, as Ray Robertson says, competence is the enemy of excellence. And we still have stories like “Girl on the Subway” to testify that, although his prose could be somewhat pedestrian, at his best, Kilodney had a writer’s sensitivity for character and emotion, and the spark of what we so cavalierly call greatness.