And now, for something completely different…

–Alert readers might note that this is the first column to span, er, two day’s writing time. If alert readers do not wish to receive a mysterious envelope containing the sinus infection I’m currently battling – post-weekend cramps – they will refrain from using the phrase ‘cheating’, OK? OK. 🙂

In my column outlining this project, I made mention of one of my favourite humourists and principal literary inspirations, Patrick F. McManus. Having decided that this column needs to develop a more outward focus before we get to the story of how I stubbed my toe on a rock aged three, I can’t think of a better subject to begin with.

Just lately, I’ve been up to my eardrums in the audiobook versions of his lovely, lively outdoor tales, as read by stage star George S. Irving. An engineer friend lent me software that makes mp3s of the cassette tapes (borrowed, I hasten to add, from the library); why anyone hasn’t yet thought of making these stories available for p2p download long since is beyond me.

Then again, this is about par for my McManus experience to date. The man’s put out about ten collections of his short essays thus far, including The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw, Never Sniff a Gift Fish and They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?.
So clearly he has oodles of other fans out there somewhere…apparently they only emerge to write the occasional glowing Amazon review, because nobody else I’ve ever run across has ever heard of him.

That he began as a columnist for Outdoor Life may explain but doesn’t excuse. Hunting, hiking and fishing are pretty much incidental to the rich human element in his humour.
He’s often compared to Mark Twain; a far gentler, more forgiving Twain, if so. ‘Pat’ has much the same cynically intelligent take on humanity – this is a man who was born and raised in the Idaho backwoods during the Great Depression, which he claims marked an actual improvement in his family’s finances – only far less confidence in his ability to navigate himself. As with James Herriot (another favourite of mine), he lures us into his uniquely offbeat world not by inviting us to laugh at others’ failings, but by making us sympathise wholeheartedly with his own attempts to cope.

It’s impossible not to embrace someone whose most famous essay is an in-depth analysis of the most effective method of reacting when lost in the woods:

…Although it will do absolutely no good, I must advise against undertaking a Full Bore Linear Panic unless, of course, one is equipped with a stout heart, a three-day supply of food, and a valid passport. Instead, I recommend the Stationary or Modified Panic. It offers the same therapeutic effect and subsides after a few minutes with none of the FBLP’s adverse side-effects, such as making your life insurance company break out in a bad rash.
The Stationary Panic first came to my attention one time when a large but harmless snake slithered across a trail a couple of yards ahead of my wife. She made a high-pitched chittering sound and began jumping up and down and flailing the air with her arms. It was a most impressive performance, particularly since each jump was approximately a foot high and her backpack happened to be the one with the tent on it. The only adverse side effect to the Stationary Panic was that the lone witness to the spectacle could not help laughing every time he though about it, a reaction quickly remedied, however, by his sleeping most of the night outside the tent in a driving rainstorm.
Although I immediately perceived the advantage of this form of panic, I could not imagine myself bouncing up and down, flailing my arms and chittering like an angry squirrel, particularly in front of the rough company with whom I usually find myself in a predicament requiring a panic. Thus it came about that I invented the Modified Stationary Panic, or MSP.
The key to the MSP is not to bounce up and down in a monotonous fashion but to vary the steps so that it appears to be a sort of folk dance. You can make up your own steps but I highly recommend throwing in a couple of Russian squat kicks. The chittering sound should be replaced by an Austrian drinking song, shouted out at the top of your voice. The MSP is particularly appropriate for group panics. There are few sights so inspiring as a group of lost hunters, arms entwined, dancing and singing for all they are worth as night closes in upon them.

The structure of the stories is simple: Pat McManus, well-meaning Every-outdoorsman, recounts the tales of his childhood adventures in semifictional (so he insists) Blight County, Idaho, where his attempts to play ‘man of the family’ from age six ran into serious roadblocks in his widowed schoolteacher Mom, ex-logging-camp cook Gram and older sister Troll, who ‘weren’t big on impossible dreams’ (“Would you shut up about a pony!”).

Then there are best buddies and born instigators ‘Crazy Eddie’ Muldoon – a kindergarten mad scientist who grew up to become ‘a Ph.D in chemistry’ – and Retch Sweeney, who later fulfils all the major requirements for a hunting companion, ie. he has a working truck. There is Cousin Buck, whose leadership skills confirmed the teenage Pat as the guy who doesn’t lead, doesn’t follow – just gets out of the way.
Most memorably there is Rancid Crabtree, local mountain man, ‘skonk’ trapper and young Pat’s ticket out of a life spent – [gack] – working. Pat’s family is rather less enchanted with the idea of his following in his idol’s footsteps, not least because Rancid’s nickname comes from his refusal to bathe more than once a year lest he ‘wash off maw protective crust!’

When Pat arrives at adulthood, he divides his time between hectic ‘brain work’ down at Kelly’s Bar & Grill (not to mention a procession of lakes, rivers and mountains) and the results of all that serious thinking, which besides the above have also produced the McManus Method of Fitness Fakery and the McManus Method of Sighting-In. Clearly, he is destined to revolutionise outdoor life as we know it, just as soon as ‘leading experts’ figure out the ultimate question: ‘Who is McManus?’

Along for the ride are Retch and the rest of the Kelly Irregulars, whom Pat once undertook to teach to cry, John Bly-style (“I took Psychology 101 in college.” “That don’t seem like much?” “I took it twice.” “Oh.”); his Wilma Flintstone-esque wife, Bun, who’s OK with Pat ogling ‘pretty little things’ just as long as they aren’t boats; neurotic neighbor Al Finley, whose desire to live a normal, ie. McManus-free, life is invariably thwarted; and 92-year-old Ed, who stubbornly refuses to go gently into that happy hunting ground.

All of this, mind, in as effortless a prose style as you’ll ever run across. This is what got me excited about following his advice (contained, incidentally, in the essay How I Got This Way, from the book of the same name); the notion of learning to write as organically, not imposing style from without but letting it flow from within, from the idea and the mood. Unfortunately, as you might have gathered, I don’t have the rich cache of ideas that a childhood in – well, anywhere except Southern Ontario – provides. So while we’re waiting around for me to compensate, here’s a few treats to tide us over.

(Note: These are pretty good-sized mp3 files – about 20MB on average, the penalty of having to capture good sound quality off a worn cassette. Well worth the time spend downloading, though. All stories of course copyright Patrick McManus and George S. Irving)

A Fine and Pleasant Misery: Another all-time classic, in which Pat lays out his basic philosophy of the outdoors.

Scritch’s Creek: The course of young love never did run smooth…especially not in a Blight County roadhouse on a Saturday night. If they ever make a TV series out of the McManus stories, this is so the pilot.

Cubs: Young Pat has met his bumbling match in Grover, the world’s worst Cub scout. When the troop’s long-awaited camping trip with the older boys turns into more of a Bataan Death March, the boys embark on a revenge scheme that works beyond their wildest dreams…

The Skunk Ladder: The archetypal Eddie Muldoon story – oddly enough, since for once it finds the boys obeying Eddie’s dad’s dictum “Just don’t build nothin’!” But even a random hole in the ground isn’t safe from the manic Muldoon genius for long…

Further Teachings of Rancid Crabtree: The sooner Pat learns all Rancid can teach about living off the land, the sooner he can ditch this school nonsense and get on with becoming a mountain man. Of course, as with climbing to the top of any profession, there are bound to be a few hitches along the way…

The Human Fuel Pump: Boy, that Al Finley, always whining. Just because Pat and Retch got a little stuck on a remote mountain road in the dead of winter, and needed his help restarting the engine…

Down and Way Out in Brazil: Pat ‘s greatest daydream has come true – he’s off to fish in faraway exotic places, just like his idol Hemingway. But can he escape the clutches of his hospitable hosts long enough to make the dream a reality?

Mean Gifts: A helpful overview of gift-giving for the outdoorsman that has everything.

Ed in Camp: Old sportsmen never die…they just convince Pat to take them on ‘one last’ trip. The ‘Old Man’ stories (of which this is the first) ride a curiously moving line between elegiac and exasperated.

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