Posted: April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

A native and lifelong resident of Montreal, Buell held both master’s and doctor’s degrees from the University of Montreal and was a member of the Communication Studies faculty of Loyola/Concordia University where he served as professor emeritus. More than that about him I’ve been unable to uncover, including whether he’s still living. All five of his known novels were published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux and each well-deserved of your time. His magnum opus though, for me, is 1976’s PLAYGROUND.

Buell’s works contain a similarly continuing theme: one perhaps best described by author Richard Matheson when speaking of his own work: “One guy, alone in the world, up against the wall.”  The books often share a linear nature, but there the likenesses end. The settings, struggles and motivations are always fresh and inventive, never self-imitative.

The “plot” for PLAYGROUND is simplicity itself: Spence Morison , typical suburban family man and wage earner, is en route for a two week fishing vacation with friends when unforeseen weather blows his Cessna off course and sends him crashing into a lake somewhere in the Canadian wilds. He struggles ashore to find himself a man alone, unfindable, and wholly without resources. Even navigation is limited to the sun and stars. With only a layman’s knowledge of survival and nature lore, the vast beauty and grandeur of his surroundings quickly become a mocking reminder of his uselessness outside society’s womb and his scant chance of survival without it. And that the terrors of the human psyche can be as darkly forbidding as the deepest forest night.

Reminiscent of Jack London’s terse prose and eerie solitude in TO MAKE A FIRE, Buell weaves a riveting balance of first and third person narrative describing Morrison’s inward and outward plight. We learn who the real Spence Morrison is even as he learns it himself– the painful shedding of old ways that no longer work, of missed opportunities and discoveries that one moment parallel societal life and the next determine his fast vanishing future, what it means to truly be alive and how death is a distinct and discernable face hovering ever at one’s shoulder.  So in touch is the author with his protagonist and surroundings, his frailties and minor triumphs, experiencing PLAYGROUND’s authentic ring we have to remind ourselves this isn’t biography. Once you’ve walked in Spence Morrison’s shoes, it’s hard to look at the magic wonder of a simple cigarette lighter in the same way again. We know the story can only end one of two ways, but feel that to stop or skip ahead would somehow  betray Morrison.

Just how good the writing is, can be shown in the last pages of Spence’s plight, when physical deprivation begins to win its war over mental:

He waited and planed and even hoped. But he had already spent himself. He felt a slight dizziness, then the momentary seizure of sleep, and more, and tried to fight it off and couldn’t. …He managed to move away from the fire and crawled more and more into nothingness.

He didn’t do it the next time. He couldn’t even get to his knees. He was aware of day, and heat, and of deciding things that drifted into vague dreams, memories he couldn’t be sure of. There was a nighttime and fire, and presences, and no words to know them by. Once, it was raining a little. He kept slipping in and out of consciousness. He knew he’d taken his boots off. The waking told him he was alive. The other kept arriving like nothing. At any moment it would stay.

The whole world knows about Cormac McCarthy, his deservedly won honors and awards. But like his creation Spence Morrison–vanished and forgotten in the vast Canadian woods–John Buell has become lost in a forest of words, most of them vastly inferior to his own. It is our loss as well. Find this book today and treasure its power.

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