Monday, June 5, 2023

Remembering Bruce McCall, Satirist and Compleat Canadian

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Bruce McCall, who died earlier this week, was, as those of us who knew and loved him recognized, very nearly unique among artists and writers of his quality. Many creative people of original gifts live at right angles to their talent, the difference between who they are and what they make being astounding, but no one was ever more right-angled—transcendent talent to human type—than Bruce. With a paintbrush in his hand, or with his fingers on a laptop, he was the most inspired of satirists. In what used to be called a “biting” vein, he blended a wild surrealist sensibility—founded on an impeccable illustrator’s technique, always manifesting visions, dreams, impossibilities in scrupulous hyper-realism—with a sharp, sometimes caustic tone, beautifully underlit by melancholia. No one who has seen his countless covers for this magazine will forget them: the disgruntled giant apes waiting for a casting call for “King Kong”; or the Francophile New York bodega specializing in caviar and champagne; or the “quiet car” on the New York subway, library-stilled; or the wall of Egyptian hieroglyphs startlingly revealed by our endless midtown demolition; or the exotic forties night club hiding beneath a manhole . . . and so many others.

But in life Bruce was, despite a sometimes gruff exterior, the most sympathetic and least abrasive of men: a perfect Canadian, raised in Simcoe and then Toronto, in a vast, intense, and varyingly unhappy family, whose fate he documented in his masterpiece, the memoir “Thin Ice.” A tale of gray-good Scots-Presbyterian Canada and its dowager-queen city, Toronto, at a period when it was at its grayest and goodest, the book describes the indignities of being a young Canadian yearning for the south. Yet Bruce remained, even in New York, the most compleat Canadian, with all the key Canadian traits: self-deprecating to an often hilarious degree, polite to an almost ferocious fault, and in equal parts appalled and attracted by the crazy circus energies of his adopted country. (With one fellow-Canadian he maintained a clandestine traffic in Coffee Crisp, a strange-tasting but weirdly addictive Canadian snack, once unfindable in America.)

Utterly devoted to his wonderful wife, Polly, and his brilliant daughter, Amanda, he was the sweetest man at any Thanksgiving table, reliably showing up with a bit of doggerel sure to include a teasing mention of each guest, and then listening quietly to the jokes and absurdities racing around the turkey. He was a matchless listener to all tales of personal pains and pleasures, with his stolid, almost grouchy normal demeanor suddenly lit up by a beautiful smile of sympathy and friendship—always earned, in the northern manner, but not, in the southern way, given promiscuously to all. His Canadianness extended even to being the only New Yorker many of us knew who drove everywhere—around the block, six streets over for lunch—and then insisted on driving you home, across the Park, after lunch. Somehow, he always found a parking space. (Bruce kept them in his pocket, we used to say.)

Yet the spell of his art transcended the sweetness of his presence. His muse was tireless and inventive. Like any first-class artist of any kind, he was an incomparably hard worker. When we collaborated on the children’s fantasy “The Steps Across the Water,” he astonished me by putting sober, precise imagery to my own slightly nebulous imaginative scenes. He was worried that he was not drawing the ten-year-old protagonist—a New York girl in a violet overcoat—correctly, and he suffered over it. He struggled manfully to realize each detail of every scene he ever drew, no matter how fantastical, to a degree that seemed unnecessary, given the wit and the beauty of what he made so readily.

But for Bruce the business of getting it down right was not merely professional, much less artisanal. It was of preternatural importance, the key to his life, the form of self-salvation which he had worked out for himself when, as a lonely kid with bad ankles (an unimaginable curse in hockey-playing Ontario) who shared a crowded room with siblings, he escaped unhappiness by drawing. First, he made his own imaginary world of comic strips, and then moved to illustration. (He eventually was so precocious that he was almost waylaid from The New Yorker by becoming an advertising illustrator, drawing the outrageously elongated and attenuated cars of the fifties—a high automotive style that he would mordantly dissect, with the cars’ proportions stretched ever further, like taffy.) Drawing was a way of demystifying the world, of getting it down right—a way of asserting yourself, of finding your own cosmos, of controlling your own fate. It put your destiny in your own drawing hand. Messiness in emotional relations he could tolerate, even empathize with, and he adored ambivalences of meaning in art. It was sloppiness in design and execution which was the only anathema.

Inspired though his images are, it is not perverse to say that his greatest contribution was the way the images meshed with his writing—in his many Shouts & Murmurs, but also in “Thin Ice” and in his other touching memoir, “How Did I Get Here?” Writing the preface for the latter, I referred, accurately, to his genius, and he guffawed and snorted upon reading it, in his best Simcoe-Scots manner. But he didn’t want it deleted. He knew his worth.

Nor was The New Yorker an accidental or instrumental vehicle for him. His parents—intelligent, discontented people—loved the magazine, and it had served for him as a beacon of style and sophistication and sheer fun in an otherwise gray world. I once wrote, in a catalogue of Bruce’s work, that, of all the artists who have graced this magazine, Saul Steinberg and Bruce McCall were the ones whose work seemed likely to live longest and echo loudest. Not having Bruce here to shock and appall (and, secretly, to delight) with such praise is part of the grief of losing him. All we can do is continue to look at his utterly inimitable visions—at the lonely polar explorers sharing an abandoned Antarctic opera house with a pair of disconsolate penguins—and be grateful that he came south to astonish us. ♦

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