Paul Quarrington dies

January 21, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

It seems like there’s been nothing but bad news round these parts lately. As most of you will already have heard, Canadian novelist, musician, and all around great guy Paul Quarrington succumbed to lung cancer early this morning. Quarrington was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in May 2009. A statement on his website reads, in part, “His brave journey ended on January 21, 2010.  He passed peacefully at home in Toronto in the early hours surrounded by friends and family. It is comforting to know that he didn’t suffer; he was calm and quiet holding hands with those who were closest to him.”

Quarrington was the author of Whale Music, a widely popular novel about a washed-up rock-n-roller, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction in 1989. His novel Galveston was shortlisted for the 2004 Giller Prize, and King Leary won the 1987 Stephen Leacock Award. That novel was out of print in 2008, when fellow musician Dave Bidini chose it as his pick for the Canada Reads competition on CBC. Quarrington’s novel went on to win the prize, beating out books such as Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley and From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant.

Bidini paid tribute to Quarrington on the National Post‘s Afterword blog earlier today:

His books – as well as his plays, films, and songs – found the strange in the normal, and the normal in the strange, whether he was writing about infirm and salt-tongued hockey players, drug-addled rock stars, baseball playing circus freaks, or lost Hollywood misfits. Even better than that, he was a gentle lion who strolled about the artscape belying whatever impetuousness or ill-humour one expects in a genius.

Other tributes poured in as the day went on, from friends, colleagues, and people who barely knew the writer, but felt touched by his fiction and his outgoing, irresistible personality. Julie Wilson, who found out by accident that she lives in a house that Quarrington once inhabited with his family, wrote:

Years later, I picked up some extra cash working at The Old Nick on the Danforth. One day, the owner said, “You work in publishing. Do you know Paul Quarrington? That’s his kid sitting at the bar.” What would I say? “Hey, I think I might sleep where you once ‘played Barbies,’ or maybe, I don’t know, thought about stuff.” But then a few years after that, I sat guarding a broad sheet at an Al Purdy tribute at the Dora Keogh. In he walked. He placed his hand on the plastic. Hey, he said. Hey, I croaked. “You know, this really isn’t a big deal. But, the thing is, I live in your old house, and I read your Take One, and, well, it’s just a small world.” He was a nice guy. So, maybe I did know Paul, because that’s all we hear. He’s a nice guy. What else would you want to know?

That’s pretty much all you hear, in fact: what a nice guy he was. And it’s true. I didn’t know him well – I only met him in person on a handful of occasions – but I always found him to be gracious, generous, and accepting. And funny. He possessed a quality that is fabulously rare among humans these days, a quality that bookseller Ben McNally hit on the head in his comment on The Afterword: “He never took himself too seriously but he always took everybody else seriously.”

I’m also quoted in The Afterword’s roundup, and I’ll take the liberty of reprinting my thoughts here, if only because I’m still a bit too emotional to come up with something more profound:

The last time I saw Paul was at the Gladstone Hotel in September, prior to an event I was doing with Ray Robertson. He told us about watching a clip from what I think was Russia’s Got Talent, which featured a woman who told stories in sand: literally. She stood on a large piece of glass and swept the sand around to create a sequence of images that, in aggregate, told a story. Paul was delighted with this and his glee was positively infectious. He also talked about going on tour with his band, and his current writing projects. When I suggested that first-person narration is the hardest kind to pull off, he disagreed – gently, but firmly, as was his wont.

In June, I had a chance to see the Porkbelly Futures perform and they were on fire: it was as if Paul had made a conscious decision to defy the diagnosis he’d been given. It’s not that he didn’t acknowledge his illness – on the contrary, he was dead straight about it with anyone who asked – but it really did seem to be the least important thing in his life. That was just the way he was: defiant in the face of adversity, playful, and determined to fully embrace life. That quality shone through in his life and in his writing.

When I read his novels, it’s this vivacity that shines through most clearly: the ribald humour, the liveliness of the prose, the complete engagement with the quotidian matters of living. While Paul will be sorely missed, he has bequeathed us a literary legacy that I have no doubt will endure. And I’m pretty sure of this: wherever he is now, there’s one kick-ass jam session going on.

Rock on, good man. With any luck, I’ll see you down the road.