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Ex-carpenter Brad Smith knows how to build family scandal
A modern-day King Lear, Brad Smith's Big Man Coming Down the Road is an entertaining examination of family in-fighting. The duplicitous Ben; his pot smoking, Bob Dylan-quoting brother Ethan; and their independent, documentary filmmaker sister Kick all inherit parts of their industrialist father Everett's sagging empire. Set in rural locales in Wyoming, Ontario and Tennessee, this country noir tale is filled with whisky, guns and western swing.
Bound by a series of codicils, Everett's children cannot claim their inheritance until they've proved their business savvy. And of course the long knives come out as the trio find themselves torn apart by greed and schemes to get more than their fair share of the fortune.
During a recent interview with Smith, he said he was conscious of the similarities between Shakespeare's dark tragedy and what he was crafting in Big Man. "But I went off in another area. Something more satirical," he said. The genesis for his book comes less from the Bard than a quote by Steve Earle, he continued, "Who called Shania Twain the world's highest paid lap dancer. There's a lot of bad music out there and I thought country music was ripe for a caricature."
With a supporting cast that features a washed-up country singer trying to pick up the pieces of his life and an ex-NHL player turned farmer, the novel's rural feel is a refreshing change of pace. Smith, who worked as a carpenter until he was into his 40s, lives in the country, on the south shore of Lake Erie. "I live amongst old-style family farmers. With the exception of Alice Munro, there isn't a lot of literature about rural Ontario. But that's the life that I know."
When we got onto the topic of Ethan, a character who relies on the lyrics of Bob Dylan to express himself, Smith said, "Dylan's people were really good to me... When I wrote the first draft I didn't think they would sell me the rights to the lyrics. But Dylan provided the rights for less than $50 a line. Unlike Paul McCartney, who wanted $1,500 for the line 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah'... Needless to say I didn't help Sir Paul pay for his divorce."
Franz Kafka once said that writers need craftsmen more than craftsmen need writers. In Brad Smith, the craftsman and the writer come together. His writing is joyful and rich with hard-luck stories and broken hearts. Big Man Coming Down the Road is a country-music satire that whoops it up like a joyride through Nashville, Tennessee.
Title about a man; story about a woman
One night, Ontario novelist Brad Smith dreamt the title for a book he didn't know the story of yet. It was Big Man Coming Down the Road.
Imagine Smith's surprise, several years later, when the protagonist turned out to be a woman named Kick.
"Will Montgomery was going to be the protagonist in this one and then Kick kind of took over," Smith, a straightforward, Hank Williams-loving country gentleman, says on a recent visit to Calgary.
"She was going to be the one everything revolved around. And Will's ... a kind of guy I've written before. He's flawed, he's basically honest, he's straightforward, and he can do things, like with his hands -- which is sort of a standard trait, because I'm a carpenter -- but then he became a secondary character because Kick just kind of took control, as women will sometimes do."
Which is exactly what happens in Big Man Coming Down the Road (Penguin Canada, 368 pages, $25), the story of a dysfuctional trio of Ontario siblings whose wealthy father leaves each of the kids -- pot-smoking, failed musician Ethan, greedy yuppie Ben and broke, idealistic documentary filmmaker Kick -- a company to run.
Kick's is a books-on-tape publisher that has a side deal with a burnt-out Nashville icon named Jonah Peck who's up to his neck in debt to the IRS. The deal forces Kick to travel to Nashville to confront the forces of evil, otherwise known as New Country Music, in an effort to rescue her company by coercing Jonah Peck into making a comeback.
Big Man Coming Down the Road is Smith's fifth novel, a rollicking picaresque that is one part Jonathan Franzen, one part Larry McMurtry, with a large dose of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen thrown in for good measure.
When he hears McMurtry's name, Smith's blue eyes light up. Turns out every Christmas he watches the entire Lonesome Dove miniseries, as a kind of yuletide present to himself. The conversation turns to the character of Augustus McRae, McMurtry's famous Texas Ranger who is the heart and soul of that Pulitzer-Prize winning novel.
"I heard (star Robert) Duvall talk about that role," Smith says. "He said, 'the English can have Shakespeare, that's my Shakespeare.' "
Smith, who's been a carpenter longer (25 years) than he's been a novelist, writes every day, a routine he taught himself to combat a notorious lack of self-discipline that nearly derailed him from doing any worthwhile writing at all as a young man.
"I write five pages a day, five days a week, but I write at least a page or two on Saturdays and Sundays," he says, "because it makes it easier to get going Monday morning. Otherwise, you party all weekend, and it's tough to get back to it."
Big Man is an exploration of two different things. One is Smith's passion for country music, and how much the Nashville world has changed for the worse; the other is the nature of the relationships between fathers and daughters.
Smith travelled to Nashville between first and second drafts.
"The actual writing itself is a job -- you have to do so much every day," says Smith. "But the research can be a really interesting experience.
"I wrote the first draft, because then I knew more specifically what I wanted to find out," he adds. "Then I went to Nashville. Drove down, just to check it out. I checked out the rural areas too, because of the Jonah Peck scenes. Tater Peel Road is an actual road. It got its name because back in the old days, they said the road was so rough, if you drove down there with a bucket full of potatoes, they would peel themselves."
It must be weird, though, to travel to a city that's so fraught with myth, only to get there and discover, as Kick does in the novel, a city filled with money-laundering former car dealers producing bad country songs sung by 20-year-olds and selling millions, while the legends find themselves ignored by the industry they created.
"I live close to Niagara Falls, so I sort of knew Nashville would be a bit like that," Smith says. "Typical of a place like that -- but you get by that ridiculous stuff, and there's some really cool clubs, with some good original music going on, and some good places to eat. (Smith loves Steve Earle and says that "since Johnny Cash died, Lyle Lovett is the coolest human being on the planet.")
"South of the city, you go to Franklin, and it's gorgeous. When you think about Hank Williams and everything -- I don't know. It's still there, but the new Nashville is there too, which is really just bad pop music, unfortunately. So it's a combination of the two."
As far as relationships between fathers and daughters go, there's the one Kick doesn't have with her late father Everett, there's the one she recreates with Jonah Peck, and there's the relationship between Peck and his daughter Paige. She is one of those bratty children of celebrities who's fresh out of rehab and doing nothing much more than hanging out waiting for her life to start when Kick shows up on the Peck farm.
Paige turns out to be one of those great supporting parts you don't see coming, which, in fact, Smith didn't.
"That was interesting, because she was going to be in one scene," Smith says. "I just wanted her to show up and have a conversation with him (Jonah) about something other than Jonah, so I wrote Paige into it and then she was going to go to New York."
Smith pauses, as if mulling over the turns life takes sometimes. Years ago, he found himself in Revelstoke working as a substitute teacher when he wrote and sold his first novel to a small publisher. But it turned out to be a long, 11-year haul between the first and second novels, a dry stretch that would defeat a lot of writers.
The second novel was rejected by every publisher Smith sent it to, until it found itself on the desk of an editor through some sort of happenstance and it found love. Smith has written three more novels, and just experienced the bizarre feeling of watching one of them (All Hat) being shot as a feature film based on a screenplay Smith himself wrote. It would appear the 11-year wait was worth it.
"Like writers say, sometimes characters write themselves," he says. "Paige just kind of caught on. As soon as I hit upon that, everybody seemed to work. And I really liked Kick and Paige together. And throw Will in there, and Paige so obviously had carnal desires on Will, and that kind of worked, too."
Just the way a gifted writer can sometimes dream a title about a man that turns out to be a story about a woman, and somehow have it make all the sense in the world.
"Sometimes," says Smith, with all the conviction of a carpenter whose grooves match perfectly, "these things just come together."