I know I am biased but my good friend Mitch Toews has written a very good novel. Or is it a very good collection of stories trying to be a novel? It doesn’t matter. All you have to know is that to read it truly worth the trip.
I first got to know Mitch when we were both on a senior men’s basketball team. I was the mascot. Oddly, two members of that team have become writers. The other is well-known Dave Bergen. Mitch may soon be just as well known. Sadly, both Mitch and Dave were much better basketball players than I was and also excellent writers. Some guys get all the breaks. Sometimes life is not fair.
Once a week through the thick and thin of winter the team drove to Winnipeg, though some like Dave Bergen lived in Winnipeg so did not have the benefit of participating in those wonderful road trips. On the way back home after a couple of “short ones” from the Nicolett Bar with its “Mega Parties” attended by about 3 or 4 customers in addition to our team, I remember Mitch would often regale us with stories. Sitting in the car with our sweaty socks and smells of stale beer, Mitch would sometimes tell long stories that were told with minute details that gave them the luster of truth, even though they were obviously filled with outrageous lies. Trump-sized lies! At best they had a whiff of the truth. I knew then, right away, that he was a wordsmith and should write. After all, lies are what fiction is all about. And Mitch was a master liar.
Now Mitch has proved I was right about that with his magnificent book Pinching Zwieback: Made up Stories from the Darp.“ [“Darp” is a small town.]
We have to forgive Mitch for his appropriation of Mennonite culture. He uses a sprinkling of Low-German words to give the book the tang of Mennonite, but he provides a set of definitions so even those unfamiliar with this glorious language will understand the word in the books. But that is all right, he is allowed to appropriate from his own culture, even if he is an outlier. Or out liar?
I really liked the stories about Died Rich (Diedrich) Deutsch who was obviously modelled after another member of our team mates. Died Rich is befriended by Dr. Rempel who discovers “an infinity-sized loophole” from hell. Lucky guy. He is free to do what he wants. So he tries to start a new religion with Died Rich as his first convert.
- My favourite story though is “Without Spot or Wrinkle” in which 2 characters are clearly fictionalized versions of my great uncle Peter and Tante Suzie. Matt’s father Hart owns a bakery and goes to the Credit Union for a loan. After all the business has one of the “ freshly printed chequebooks that makes money appear as if by magic—or possibly as some claim—in response to prayer.” Hart notices the desk for the loans officers is “rectilinear and oppressively neat” telling us a lot about the community in which it is located. As well, there is a plaque “that smells like money” where “A framed dollar bill looks down from the wall like a coat-of-arms.” It is a place with a stern “ Elizabeth Regina overseeing all.” In that image you know all you need to know about this institution. This is a place that only those who are not faint of heart should enter. It reminds me of the line by Bob Dylan, “Jack the Ripper sits at the head of the Chamber of Commerce selling road maps of the soul.”
When Hart admits to the account manager he doesn’t attend church he knows his chance of getting the loan are sunk. When “Elizabeth Regina looks down, a savage smile on her green lips,” you know that smile is for Hart and he knows all he needs to know. When the account manager “closes the ledger with a soft thud…the neat rows of numbers seem to protest—the zeros calling out in open -mouthed desperation.” To no avail of course.
Fortunately, he finds a much more friendly banker down the street. Mr. Heid, no doubt modelled after kindly old T.G. Smith, ‘with a green-stained baseball” on his desk you which lets you know his chances are much better here. Hart has landed at a kinder, gentler, and smarter lender. Heid fortunately is not one of the so-called Christians. As Matt’s friend Peter Vogel said, “He has a firm hand on the idea of being fair—helping his neighbours no matter who or what he is. Not a church man that Heid, but he acts more like one than some others.” Vogel has sharp words for the newer lenders like those at the Credit Union that “forget the old ways, those guys with their fine suits.”
I always knew Mitch would be a good writer. I just didn’t know how good. The stories whisper words of wisdom. The best kind of wisdom in a world in which we get too much of the other kind. All of you should get out and buy this book. Immediately. This guy can write, a heck-of-a-lot better than he ever played basketball.