Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Why Jesus Toast?

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Monday, October 3rd: Third Post

Why does Sherman Estes Silverstein, one of the five members of the improv troupe named Kerfuffle, secretly sell Jesus Toast? Why not? That’s the first most obvious, if somewhat flippant, answer. It’s timely and topical. It’s utterly absurd yet still resonant and metaphoric. Selling Jesus toast on-line is the perfect manifestation of the futility that a thwarted creative intellect like Sherman feels in 2010 when there seems no other way out of the predicament of his impending unemployment. And, if I don’t say so myself, it’s a bloody brilliant answer.

Months back, when I first showed this scene to friends, they all reacted the same way: “Damn, why didn’t I think of that!” We made plans to quit our jobs and sink every cent of non-existant savings into our own kitchen industries. My friend Dale insisted that once the book came out, it would inspire others to do so, so we better beat them to the toaster now.

But of course Kerfuffle is about more than toast. In my On Writing section, there’s a very short summary, but now that you’ve met Sherman, I thought you might like to see an expanded version to put Sherm in the context of the book as a whole. To help you understand the challenges and motivations I'm experiencing, I’d like to introduce you to the question from the 1960’s that it is no exaggeration to say has absorbed me for most of my life:

When the house is burning down around the poet’s head, on grounds of what if any dispensation can the poet continue the poem?
— Carl Oglesby, leader of the SDS: Students for a Democratic Society

As a disabled writer, two moments from the G20 haunt me. One is the now iconic photo of a boy leaping atop a flaming police car and the other is the story of a disabled protestor relaxing on the grass at Queen’s Park who was ordered to remove his prosthetic leg. Kerfuffle blends both moments. It is a novel-in-progress about a disabled performer and her culturally diverse improv troupe trying to make humour, art and artful humour, while Toronto is literally burning down around their heads. Combining improv comedy with the seriously complex politics of Canadian rights and freedoms is the exactly kind of forced fit improvisers love. While Kerfuffle does not shirk either the Black Bloc or kettling, it has also been enormous fun to bring so many of my favourite things to its pages -- Sherlock Holmes, The Sound of Music, George Bernard Shaw, the Arthurian Legend, the courage of ordinary people and the sweet revenge of women wronged — all in an attempt to explore Carl Oglesby’s question.

One of the most interesting challenges has been to answer the question with a novel that has the flow, feel and structure of an improv game. Kerfuffle has no chapters. Instead, each random call of “Meanwhile” relocates the audience in time, space and action, either forward or back, or revisits a scene for a “deepening” or a “do-over.” I am truly enjoying the experimental blending and blurring of performance and reality, similar to The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. I’m finding it a most appropriate way to share an insider’s view of improv and to examine the surreal events of that June weekend as seen through the richly imaginative personalities and disparate identities of my five-member troupe.

Nellie Wolfe is a pregnant and disabled museum docent with a viral wit, who refuses any identity as a victim. She sees nothing amiss when one of the museum’s swords introduces itself as Excalibur, proceeds to butcher the Arthurian legend and offers to whack the unnamed father of her twins — “the boy worth stabbing.” Calvaire Personne is a PHD student in Canadian Studies who plans his own personal protest at the G20, motivated by the loss of his brother in the earthquake in Haiti. Constanzia Forgione is a waitress and hopeful poet. As a young lesbian, she is out to her friends, but still in the closet for her extended Italian family, including an ex-uncle intent on pimping her out for the summit. Andy Mclean appears to be the optimistic innocent of the troupe, but at home he is the victim of physical abuse by his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Sherman Silverstein, the player you met yesterday, is Kerfuffle’s resident theoretician, cynic, chronic stutterer and, not incidentally, the secret entrepreneur of Jesus toast.

To give a second, all-seeing voice to the novel, the over-arcing “character” in Kerfuffle is the theatre itself. Blakkat has watched a troop of young people hide black clothing and weapons in her awning. As the weekend unfolds and Blakkat is damaged in the protest, she takes an active voice as M.C., critic and all-seeing narrator. Saturday’s improv show goes on — despite the protest and because of it — as Kerfuffle confronts perceptions about each other, their art form and their city. Nellie wields Excalibur. Cal inadvertently gets Andy arrested. Connie exacts a truly fitting revenge on her perverted uncle. Sherman chooses between his troupe and his toast.

Hopefully, as my novel progresses, all members of the improv triad — Blakkat, performers and audience — will discover both personal and collective reasons for making art, even (and especially) when the house is on fire.

I wonder how you would answer the same question?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page