Toronto
4 min

Crazy wisdom

Keeping wounds fresh

STRANGE, STRANGE BOY. Welcome to the mischevious, morbid world of Greg Kearney. Credit: Paula Wilson

A woman’s attempts to hide a rank post-operative smell by using a perfume beguiles another woman who thinks not of mastectomies but of gondola-borne romance. A man returns from Home Depot and tells his depressive wife that he was accosted by a strung-out shopper who couldn’t stop talking about how she got fucked in the ass. An embittered grown daughter is obsessed with bathing her incapable mother, alleging that a permanent stink hangs around mum. Mum is more interested in reading about Anne Boleyn.



This is the fictional world of Greg Kearney, playwright, short-story stylist and Xtra columnist. His first collection, Mommy Daddy Baby, has just been published by McGilligan Books and his quirky, unsettling and sometimes hilariously discordant world is on parade. It’s a situation with which the gentle, shy and vulnerable Kearney is not all that comfortable.



Seated at the back of the desperate interior of the Yonge St hustler bar Sneakers, Kearney is more than six feet tall, burly, hairy and, at 31, he normally sports a black Fu Manchu moustache that you’d see on a trucker. Yet when he talks he constantly pulls on the cuffs of his taupe zip-front sweater, as if trying to make his hands disappear. When they don’t he squeezes them between his thighs. He hunches his shoulder so his head can submerge inside a carapace and he squints, as if to block out the light of a threatening world. He slips about on his Sneakers stool as if it had been greased.



He’s afraid of being wounded, like he was when his last play was produced in 2002. An embittered toxic critic at a weekly newspaper trashed Kearney’s play and the bad smell has lingered in the soft-spoken Kearney’s mind ever since.



He reveals the macabre undercurrents of a childhood he has come to terms with. “Both my parents were ill-equipped to navigate their 30s and 40s. My sister was run over by a car and killed when she was six.” The subsequent trauma culminated in epic reprisals. “On Christmas Eve, everybody got drunk and acted out this kabuki scene.”



Running throughout Mommy Daddy Baby – a title he chose for its generic quality, just as his next play will be named (555) 555-5555 – is a temperament of disease, decay, rot, insanity and death. When you understand where Kearney is from it makes sense. “Kenora is the cancer capital of Canada. Children riddled with cancer. No one really knows why. I’m forever checking obituaries on-line,” he says, to see who back in northwestern Ontario has died. “It was a desperately morbid place. Breast lumps, hair loss and emissions.”



Although he wasn’t sick or deformed, in high school he was reviled as misshapened. “It was my deportment. I was exuding misshapenedness.” He got interested in theatre when the Thunder Bay company Magnus Theatre accepted one his plays, Fruits And Crosses, in its Young Playwrights’ Challenge program. “It was the story of a stay-at-home frump. It was really atrocious but there was a kernel of vitality in it.”



One story in the new collection, “Nook,” is a thinly veiled memoir of life in Kenora, about the proprietor of a boutique who’s diddling native boys on the side. Other stories are populated by characters based on his own father. “He wouldn’t care. We’ve weathered so much and when we speak it’s pretty primordial. Nothing could break us apart.” Not even a story he wrote when he was a little boy about having sex with his father. His mother found the story, a mortifying disclosure for the young Greg.



“My version of It’s A Wonderful Life is The Exorcist. My take is the mother being more concerned about the priest curing her of her own demons than those of her daughter.” He began work on Mommy Daddy Baby in 2002 after his last play. Ken Sparling, then editor of Broken Pencil, a zine about zines, took one of Kearney’s stories. Encouraged (although Kearney prefers to characterize it as “desperation”), he kept churning out three- to four-page “ditties.” Sparling, he says, “got me back on the horse.”



“I try not to think. It turns me into a misanthrope. It stops me from writing.” He dropped out of third year at York University, where he’d studied theatre and later, creative writing. “By the third year the bullshit academic lexicon was foisted upon you and you either had to accept it or pretend you accepted it.” So he dropped out and became a prostitute at Sneakers.



“I was terrible,” he says so softly you can barely hear him. “I don’t carry myself with a lot of assurance.” He came off more like gangling Shelley Duvall than a young buck on the make. It was not a damaging experience particularly, and the attention he did receive – mostly from men in wheelchairs – was positive. “Otherwise I’m a lumbering, white male.”



Later he would begin a long-running series for this newspaper of humorous columns on odd, off-centre subjects. “I really slave over it. I know it’s a tiny little thing but I think it’s hearty.” He writes about anything, as he puts it, that gives him a boner, such as his love for Sissy Spacek and his concern for her financial welfare back in the 1990s when all she seemed to get were walk-ons on HBO movies. “She’s over the hump now,” he says. A recent column examined the death of Laura Branigan and the question of invisibility for artists who don’t produce. “It’s cornpone I can expand on,” he says. “They’re getting harder to write because I’m not so brazen now.”



His list of people he admires is equally off-kilter from the mainstream, even a bit antique: Amy Hempel, Buffy St Marie (he laughs when he says her name) and Joni Mitchell (he sports a tattoo on one deltoid recalling Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira).



“I despise contemporary fiction with its expository pot-boiler writing. I don’t read fiction, ever.” He loves Martina Navratilova for her “telegenic perversion.” He woke up one day in 1983 and instead of Saturday morning cartoons, women’s professional tennis was on. “I saw this muscle-bound Valkyrie playing. I was fascinated and have been ever since.”



A few weeks ago he organized a birthday party in which he combined karaoke with Method acting. He invited participants to imagine that they were in front of a Sandinista firing squad, at once terrified of execution but kinda loving it, too. Plus they had to sing “Uptown Girl.” One woman performed brilliantly but, he says, “the audience was nonplussed.”



Asked to pick out five words to affix to the author’s photo in the back of his book, he writes: “dogged,” “psychic,” “singular,” “ungainly” and “hopeful.” Asked to sum up his first collection of short stories, Kearney thinks, then says in a small voice: “The book is puerile and scabrous. But it’s fresh.”



* The launch for Mommy Daddy Baby is at the Black Eagle (457 Church St) on Wed, Nov 17 at 8pm featuring a karaoke party.



MOMMY DADDY BABY.

Greg Kearney.

McGilligan Books.

144 pages. $19.95.