For the last installment of ‘Mentor, Tormentor,’ I am please to introduce you to the stoned, sweaty, self-conscious book in the corner wearing the Hypermart smock—Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Stripmalling. Stripmalling is a quirky book chronicling the life of Jonny, a Shill Station gas jockey, Hypermart associate, and aspiring writer from Transcona, Winnipeg. The book flits from Jonny’s youth in Transcona to his mid-life crisis in Montreal, sometimes in his voice, sometimes written from the point of view of ex-wife Dora, all of it inter-spliced with comic-strip versions or digressions of the story, drawn by Evan Munday. To give you a sense of the book’s self-deprecating humour, the short, punchy chapters come with titles such as, “It’s Hard to Get Fired from a Gas Station, but I’m Special,” and, “University of Suck.” If you’ve ever worked a job with a polyester uniform and the looming threat of mystery shoppers, this is the vindication you’ve been looking for.
What I am most interested in here, however, is the University of Suck. Jonny has the good fortune of being the least tormented of the writing protégés I’ve discussed, but he suffers nonetheless. Jonny’s mentor, Carmen Adams, is a sharp, sarcastic teacher and important local poet and publisher. When Jonny drifts into his first class late, he bears the brunt of her considerable snark. Carmen is, however, a generous professor who wants her students to succeed.
If you’ve ever had a snotty traditionalist critique your poems in a workshop, like Jonny, you will be forever endeared to Carmen when on pages 86-87 she tells Jonny’s workshop nemesis Alec Bligh, the neo-formalist in the sweater vest, to go stuff it. After he derides Jonny’s poem Wheat Shafts (o shafts/ you remind/ me of my/ father just before/ his vasectomy), Carmen interrogates Alec about what forcing every writer and poem to be the same would accomplish. Alec responds:
“No, Alec. It would lead to row after row of identical artifacts. Each artifact would be so exquisitely crafted, so completely not unique. Your desire is to reduce the literary artist to the level of the artisan. And if you were to have this desire fulfilled, every poem would be an exercise in craft. And every poet would be Alec: a smug, white, young man of privilege, wearing a sweater vest and a necktie, and contemplating the emblematic resonance of a goddamned willow tree.”
As Jonny says, “[a]t that moment, she was perfect.” Carmen continues to lovingly screw with Jonny’s head (while screwing her other students more literally) as she teaches Jonny about the publishing industry. As Jonny’s undergrad progresses, however, Carmen becomes ill. Jonny tells us:
“I wish I could deliver some sort of punchline at this point, but there’s nothing funny about this. And there’s no big lesson to this either, no moral, nothing to be gleaned… There’s no other way to say it. It just sucks.”
And that’s the thing about good mentors—it’s hard to let them go.