John Buell: Novels about Canada’s Vulnerable Foreshadowed Current Furors

Karen Black in The Pyx, based on the novel of the same name by John Buell (Host Productions Quebec/IMBd)

Montreal writer John Buell’s haunting novels foreshadowed current furors.

One of the most emotionally charged legal controversies in recent Canadian history came to a head over the summer when the Ontario Court of Appeal reached a decision on two similar cases, R. v. Sullivan and R. v. Chan, and outraged women’s organizations and victims’-rights groups vowed to contest the ruling. The decision has far-reaching implications for Canada and beyond.

Both cases involved a defendant who had committed a violent crime while in a state of intoxication. In its June decision, the court found that statute 33.1 of Canada’s criminal code, which barred defendants from trying to avoid criminal responsibility through claims that they were intoxicated when they committed their crime, violated rights spelled out in the nation’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Put simply, the court affirmed that claiming extreme intoxication is, in fact, a valid legal strategy for accused persons and that to deny them that avenue is unconstitutional. It’s a victory for the defense bar and for violent criminals, and a setback for those who don’t want legal chicanery to get in the way of protecting citizens.

Given the role of substance abuse in domestic violence, the decision stands to have a greater impact on some members of the public than on others. Women and children suffer a huge share of the physical abuse that violent sociopaths dish out. In an opinion piece in the Star, Megan Stephens, executive director and general counsel of the Toronto-based Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, notes that technically the intoxication defense will still apply only in a case of extreme self-induced inebriation, when the defendant has slipped into an “automatistic state” and lost all agency and control over his actions. But Stephens predicts that accused persons and their lawyers will readily resort to this defense whether or not it has any basis in truth. Even though drunk people can be quite aware of what they are doing and can make choices, it may be hard if not impossible to refute defense claims and prove that a defendant did have control.

“What is most upsetting about this decision is the message that it sends to victims of gender-based violence,” Stephens writes. “It seems to say to women and children that men will not be held accountable for their violence.”

Although this is a bit simplistic — women, too, commit their share of domestic abuse — Stephens is generally correct about the ruling’s likely consequences and the need to overturn it lest a more permissive climate for violent crime take hold.

The Sorriest ExcuseThe court’s ruling is flabbergasting from a commonsense standpoint. It says, loud and clear: Hey, if you want to beat up your spouse, or assault a stranger in public, just get really wasted first, and erect a legal firewall against prosecution. All you’ll have to do is claim that you were too drunk or high to know what you were doing, and it’ll be hard to prove otherwise.

There was a time, not so long ago, when society and the courts would have reviled a criminal more, not less, for compounding one type of offense with another. But in today’s more progressive and enlightened legal culture, someone who abuses alcohol or drugs and commits violence is less guilty, not more.

This twisted logic is sadly of a piece with other high-profile cases in Canada. In February 2009, Quebec cardiologist Guy Turcotte, distraught over his failing marriage and enraged over an affair his wife was having with a personal trainer, stabbed his five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter to death and tried to commit suicide by drinking windshield fluid. In July 2011, a jury found Turcotte not criminally responsible, on grounds of mental disorder. His lawyer made statements emphasizing that an accused person has to be in a lucid and reasonable frame of mind to receive a criminal conviction, and did Turcotte’s actions on that awful day in 2009 sound reasonable? It’s a fine bit of Alice in Wonderland logic — the more heinous your crime, the less guilty you are. (Fortunately, the sickening and outrageous verdict was eventually overturned on appeal. But, in a grim postscript to the crime, the police officer who entered the Turcotte home and found the butchered children committed suicide last year, unable to deal with the traumatic memories any longer. Turcotte’s depraved actions ruined many lives.)

Take a Tour of the Real CanadaReading about these and other recent cases in Canada, this writer thought of a novelist with a singular gift for understanding, and placing in context, his society’s ills. That novelist is John Buell (1927–2013), who wrote five remarkable books and taught English and communication studies at Concordia University in Montreal. During one of my visits to Montreal, in December 2001, I met Buell in person and chatted with him about his life and work. Never have I met a more approachable, personable, and interesting writer and man. Conservatives, and lovers of fine literature everywhere, are missing out if they don’t read and study Buell.

Anyone who persists in thinking of Canada as the Scandinavia of North America — a polite, quiet, low-key nanny-state society where the pace of life is slower and nothing much out of the ordinary happens — should read Buell’s work, which drew high praise from literary critic Edmund Wilson. To read Buell’s novels, The Pyx (1959), Four Days (1962), The Shrewsdale Exit (1972), Playground (1976), and A Lot to Make Up For (1990), is to explore a world where the hardships of life and the depredations of the lawless test the character of men and women daily. And, one hastens to add, children. One of the common features of Buell’s novels is a concern for the most vulnerable members of society. Often these are very young people — Four Days is the story of a boy who gets roped by his older brother into taking part in a bank robbery, and then wanders alone with the loot in the wilds of Quebec after things don’t go as planned. In other cases, the characters are people with few resources and low social status: sex workers, maids, recovering addicts, victims of crime, and others who bear the brunt of callousness and violence.

It is eerie how directly much of Buell’s work adumbrates current controversies. In reaction to the Ontario court ruling in Sullivan and Chan, journalists and advocates identified sex workers as among those most likely to be victims of crimes that it will now be harder to prosecute. Buell’s work shows an honest concern with this segment of society. The Pyx is the story of a Montreal prostitute, Elizabeth Lucy, who meets a tragic end after a sinister cult lures her into taking part in a satanic ritual. Supposedly they want to hire Elizabeth for sex, but it turns out they have human sacrifice in mind, and Elizabeth is in such desperate straits that one wonders whether she could say no to these clients even if she knew their real intent. Buell’s sympathetic portrayal of a character others might shun or mock will evoke empathy for the sex workers of today who, in the event of a booze- or drug-fueled sexual assault, will find themselves with fewer legal recourses as a result of the June ruling.

Written in a spare, elegant style, The Pyx is a mesmerizing first novel with heavy overtones of Catholic guilt and outrage at the depravity of contemporary life. The Pyx was the basis for a haunting, eerie 1973 movie filmed on location in Montreal and starring the late Karen Black as Elizabeth, Christopher Plummer as a detective assigned to her case, the legendary Quebec stage actor Jean-Louis Roux as the devil-worshiper who organizes the deadly ritual, and, in perhaps its most interesting role, Terry Haig as Elizabeth’s friend, a sensitive and sad young homosexual named Jimmy, who tries to help solve the murder only to meet a bloody end. Haig’s nuanced, layered performance is hard to forget. The film is a neglected masterpiece.

(Buell’s estate should be aware that American director Ti West’s 2009 film The House of the Devil lifts the basic premise of The Pyx without attribution, with the difference that the young woman duped by Satanists into making herself available for a human sacrifice is a babysitter rather than a call girl.)

Buell’s first novel has a certain thematic unity with his last. A Lot to Make Up For is also partly about struggling women who have to deal with a sociopath in a position to exploit and harm them. Adele Symons is a maid who cleans houses in small Ontario towns to scrape by. She has the bad luck to take a job at the home of a middle-aged couple who claim that the last two maids they hired both stole from them. It transpires that this claim is just smoke. The male member of the couple lurks in the house when a maid comes over to clean, and then presents himself in an exposed state to her, expecting a different service from the one she thought she was there to perform. It’s an awful enough scenario as it is. Just imagine if the creep could assault the maid and then claim, “Hey, I was so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing.”

A Lot to Make Up For arouses genuine concern for Adele Symons and for its other protagonist, a recovering addict named Stan Hagan, who goes looking for Adele in the hope of apologizing for his abominable past behavior. In some respects, Stan is a bit luckier than Adele. A kind, terminally ill elderly man named Martin Lacey takes an interest in Stan and offers him the opportunity to work on Martin’s farm. Stan’s redemption comes, in part, through hard, honest work.

Suspense and Social InsightIn between The Pyx and A Lot to Make Up For, Buell wrote Four Days, about the bank robbery and its aftermath; Playground, the story of a middle-aged executive who gets lost on a trip to the wilds of northern Quebec and must rely on his wits to survive; and The Shrewsdale Exit, a gripping and harrowing account of a biker gang’s murder of the wife and daughter of an honest man, John Grant, and the retribution that follows. After training himself to use a pistol and fending off a new attack by the bikers, it is Grant, not the bikers, who ends up in jail. Conservatives will quickly relate to the issues Buell raises here. Under the twisted logic of a progressive legal system, a law-abiding man who has suffered unspeakable loss and who resorts to self-defense ends up in jail while his attackers go free. It’s left to Grant to find a way to escape from jail and seek retribution, but things don’t play out at all as they would in a more conventional novel. I won’t spoil the ending of The Shrewsdale Exit. You must experience it.

In The Shrewsdale Exit, Buell’s talent for evoking a searing social reality is once again on display. I don’t know that Buell had personal experience with dangerous biker gangs, but the profane lingo and biker subculture in the novel seem authentic. The novel came out in 1972, the same year as Brian Garfield’s Death Wish. The parallels between the books are obvious — they’re both about the horrific crime that made life in that decade nearly unbearable for so many people — but from a literary standpoint, Buell’s work is incomparably better. His style is an agile, nimble wonder that renders complex action and layered thoughts and emotions vividly, with never a wasted word. He captures, more compellingly than Garfield, the plight of a civilized man faced with utter barbarity and no good options, and conveys the legitimacy and necessity of fighting back against predators.

Anticipating a Real CrimeThe Shrewsdale Exit was the basis for a 1975 French film L’Agression, which reminds us in an oddly fascinating way how directly life imitates art. The role of the father who loses his daughter (and wife) to the vicious bikers is played by none other than Jean-Louis Trintignant, France’s greatest actor. Many years after playing this role in the film, Trintignant lost his real-life daughter, Marie, at the hands of a violent sociopath. Bertrand Cantat, the lead singer of the French band Noir Désir, fatally beat Marie Trintignant in a hotel room in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2003, inflicting 19 blows to her head. And the parallels don’t stop there. On the basis of legal sophistry not dissimilar to that on display this summer in the Ontario court’s ruling, Cantat served only four years in prison for “murder with indirect intent.” His subsequent musical career has reportedly been highly successful.

One wonders how many more violent sociopaths like the ones in Buell’s novel will serve little or no jail time after deploying the “I was drunk” defense.

A Rebounding ReputationFor many years, much of Buell’s work was out of print, and it was hard to find copies anywhere. I located a copy of Playground in a Montreal used bookstore, in a section devoted to “strange and unusual” Canadian literature, and made a few other fortuitous finds in Canadian and U.S. bookstores, and Buell himself was kind enough to send me a copy of The Shrewsdale Exit after our meeting in 2001.

The good news is that efforts are underway to bring Buell’s work to new readers. Brian Busby, a literary historian, writer, blogger, and proprietor of a small Montreal press, Véhicule, has brought The Pyx and Four Days back into print. Busby came upon signed first editions of those novels many years ago at a yard sale not far from where Buell lived and has discussed and analyzed Buell’s work in recent years on his blog.

Why is Buell less known than authors with half Buell’s talent?

“I see two reasons for the author’s profile remaining low in this country, the first being that his books, hardcover and paperback, were placed with foreign publishers,” Busby says. “Much more significantly, he considered himself an educator rather than a novelist. He did not travel in literary circles and gave few interviews.”

But now Buell’s work is readily available for new generations of readers to discover.

“I take pride in having returned The Pyx and Four Days to print,” adds Busby.

Canada and the world have seldom needed a writer as acutely as they need Buell at the present juncture. When I met Buell that day in December 2001, I was about the same age as the recovering junkie Stan Hagan in A Lot to Make Up For, and Buell was roughly the same age as Martin Lacey, the terminally ill elderly man who helps Hagan turn his life around through a stern regimen of work and self-sufficiency. That meeting was the last time I saw or spoke to Buell, who set me on the path to a painstaking exploration of a vividly rendered fictional world. Buell did not pass from this world without leaving behind a body of work conveying a resonant moral message that lights the way to reversing Canada’s moral rot.

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