Books: Then and Now

Category: Then

Review: No Axe Too Small to Grind by Joey Slinger

By: Richard E. Gower

Nineteen eighty-six doesn’t seem like that long ago, especially when you can remember exactly what you were doing that particular year. In my case, divorce springs to mind, or at least the prelude to it. Some events stand out more than others. It was also the year that No Axe Too Small to Grind by Joey Slinger won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Maybe that’s why the book has remained on my shelves as a keeper. Good comic relief is underrated as an emotional analgesic. It’s right up there with chocolate truffles and twelve-year old scotch.

Slinger’s musings in the Toronto Star, where he wrote a regular column for almost twenty-nine years, were one of the best reasons to subscribe to or buy the newspaper every morning, when people still actually did that. In the realm of Canadian newspaperdom from 1979 to 2008, his columns stood out starkly from all the others. And you either got Slinger, or you didn’t. He operated on a unique human frequency.

If you were reading him for the first time it was like discovering a small, intensely-coloured and multi-faceted polished stone in a scree of coarse-crushed, battleship-gray aggregate. To people who don’t care anything about stones, that find would be meaningless. But to a semi-precious gem collector, it harkens a bonanza. In a 1991 article about Slinger in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, James Watts said: “His work makes some people laugh out loud and others shake their heads in bewilderment.”

No Axe Too Small to Grind is a collection (the subtitle is: The Best of Joey Slinger) of his Toronto Star columns published from 1979 to 1985. They continue to wear well today. In the Ryerson article, Watts wrote that the book: “.aptly describes the columnist’s raison d’être: to make big issues out of small ones.” and that is, in the main, it’s appeal. But in order to fully appreciate Slinger you have to be willing to let your mind depart from the macadam.

When Slinger retired from the Toronto Star in 2008, one of his colleagues, feature writer Francine Kopun, wrote, in tribute to his work: “His satire was sometimes taken as fact by the literal-minded, which kept the Star ombudsman busy, explaining, for example, that a column about a festival of nudity in Aurora was meant to be funny. The town’s residents wouldn’t really be shedding their clothes at a festival in June.”

Some of the chapter titles (each one a former column) themselves provide insight (and perhaps fair warning) into his idiosyncratic world view. Staying out of the gutter; Bogging down in tofu; Daycare for ducks; Wild bicycles; My father’s pyjamas and Long live Brussels sprouts all take the reader careening off the path of practicality and on to a parallel course where you can still see the other track, but the one you are on now is without a speed limit for the imagination. When you’ve buckled your seat belt, the ride can be like a launch down the drag strip in a 10,000 hp Top Fueler. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is all on wheels of pure whimsy.

James Watts wrote that Slinger: “…hides his opinion behind a mask of nonsense. His only apparent ideology is to attack the stupid, the cruel and the self-important, but not every day and not always in the same way. He is, as one magazine editor described him, a “closet moralist.” ”

In Giving Daniel credit, Slinger doesn’t raise the tone of the piece above a whisper to perceptively skewer every predatory credit card company that ever sent a bulk direct mail offer to a five year old child.

Shadow of the cruise, written around the time NATO and the Warsaw Pact were puffing out their chests at each other, drove home the sobering realization to parents that unless the world ended its headlong rush toward nuclear war that their children might well be the last humans on the planet.

And his eulogy (Terry passes) for Terry Fox, the distance runner and cancer victim who set out on a cross-Canada run in 1980 to raise money for cancer research (that became the annual Marathon of Hope) after having one leg amputated, was simply, incomparable.

But when Slinger opens up the helium valve in his brain and floats out his pet peeves as he does in Quiet on the breakfast front, it makes for thoughtful opinions like: “As generalizations go, one of the safest is that people who talk during breakfast have serious emotional disorders. And people who talk before breakfast are perverts.”

In Advice to the lifelorn, he passes on these practical pearls of wisdom: “Be born into a wealthy family.” and: “If it is too late to be born into a wealthy family the next best thing to do is find a wealthy family and hang around with them. Show up for meals. Stand outside the bathroom in the morning holding your toothbrush and waiting your turn. Wealthy people have little interest in details. Before long they will conclude you are one of theirs and buy you a pony.”

Gone LEGO is an all-out riff on the ubiquitous little plastic building blocks and a complete flight of fancy from beginning to end. As LEGOMAN he was engaging with the prime minister about the state of the economy when: “…my LEGO sense told me that Vorgons were attacking my bedroom again. In a flash I was there, fending them off with all the LEGO resources at my command, when my wife walked in. She looked around at the carnage littering the floor and said, ‘This has got to stop.’ And you know, she was right. So I took her apart and put her back in the LEGO box. In the morning I will build a new wife. One who isn’t so cranky. Right now I have my hands full with the Vorgons.”

In the 1991 Ryerson Review article, James Watts called Slinger “perhaps the best writer, in Canadian newspapers.” I would not dispute that. He fully embraced his wordcraft and he was great at it. No Axe Too Small to Grind (McClelland and Stewart: ISBN 0-7710-8206-1) is now long out of print but I’ve seen copies in used book stores and you can find it on Alibris and Amazon. Pick up a copy for the night table alongside the bed. Ten minutes between its covers will help smooth the edges off any rough day. REG