As a child growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland in the 1950s, actor and funny man Greg Malone lived in a world of institutionalized violence. His teachers gladly punished students with the strap for minor indiscretions. His father’s unpredictable temper fostered horrible tensions in a generally unhappy house. Despite all this, You Better Watch Out, the author’s memoir, is almost totally devoid of rancor or rage.
Malone, an actor, political activist and co-founder of the comedy group CODCO, is possessed of remarkable storytelling skills. He bring us back to a time when five cents actually bought something, children played in the streets until it was dark, and differences between Catholics and Protestants were heartfelt and hostile. There is no nostalgia in the book, just Malone’s brilliant capacity to show what he once lived. His style is sober, his sentences rich and complete, conveying the author’s maturity as he reflects on his former self. Through short chapters he slowly unravels an imperfect youth.
The peaceful and sometimes ironic tone is even more remarkable considering that Malone’s conservative Catholic background made it hard for him to develop his sexual identity. When he wanted to play house with girls, his father and teachers wanted to see him “throw a ball around.” Later, when he started subtly appreciating his classmates’ appearance in his all boys’ school, brothers and friends pressured him to start dating women.
Some chapters convey the child’s banal unhappiness in his home life. Although his parents were physically present, they were often inattentive to the desires and wants of their five children. In the chapter “The Truck,” the author builds up to a perfect Christmas morning disappointment. After begging and pleading with his mom for weeks for a particular truck, he opens up his present to find, not the truck, but an unwanted — and expected — toy. He is unsurprised; this is a great example of the kinds of details that leave a child bitter. His mother listened, she agreed, yet she bought another truck, thinking it wouldn’t matter to Greg.
More dramatic events do occur, particularly in the school environment. In the chapter “The Strap,” children are confronted with strap-happy religious teachers whose violent traditions are hardly justified by their explanations. Most of the kids are used to it, but when a teacher hits a student in the face with a strap, or punches another one in the stomach, “the class pulled back in panic as though to escape. How far would he [the teacher] go?”
This memoir reads like an enjoyable novel; the reader can only adopt the author’s apparent peace of mind. Skillfully written, this book is not vengeful, it never points a finger. Instead it reveals a forgotten past through the eyes of a talented writer who tells old stories with intelligence, grace, and a deep sense of closure.
Joseph Elfassi is a Montreal-based freelance journalist and photographer. View his online portfolio at http://www.elfassi.ca/