Human Amusements


Offering further evidence of his astounding range as a novelist, the bestselling author of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York crafts a hilarious and moving paean to the dawn of the television age. Henry Prendergast grew up on television—not merely watching it, but starring in the wildly popular children’s show “Rumpus Room.” Cast in the roles of Bee Good and Bee Bad by his mother Audrey, the show’s creator, Henry came of age along with the new medium—one that would soon propel his ...

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Human Amusements

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Offering further evidence of his astounding range as a novelist, the bestselling author of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York crafts a hilarious and moving paean to the dawn of the television age. Henry Prendergast grew up on television—not merely watching it, but starring in the wildly popular children’s show “Rumpus Room.” Cast in the roles of Bee Good and Bee Bad by his mother Audrey, the show’s creator, Henry came of age along with the new medium—one that would soon propel his family out Toronto’s middle-class life and into the tabloids.

Henry’s father Peter, a would-be novelist, refuses to have any part in his wife’s burgeoning television empire, but commits himself instead to the task of being a walking, talking—mostly scathing—reminder of the family’s “humble beginnings.” Then, on the heels of Rumpus Room, Audrey dreams up The Philo Farnsworth Show, loosely based on the life story of the young teen credited with inventing the tube and starring Henry in the lead role. Rapidly amassing a cult-like following of “Philosophers,” the show challenges the Prendergasts anew. Forced into increasing isolation by a fervent media, they must work harder than ever to not let success get the best of them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Wise, funny, touching.”— The Globe & Mail

“Funny, eccentric, and touching . . . [Human Amusements] leaves us nostalgic for a kinder, gentler, mediascape, and the life that went with it.”—The Toronto Star

“Wayne Johnston’s books are beautifully written, among the funniest I’ve ever read, yet somehow at the same time among the most poignant and moving.”—Annie Dillard

“This bittersweet novel touches the funny bone and the heart.”—The Edmonton Journal

“Charles Dickens would have greatly admired Johnston's style and humor–And the old master would have envied the vivid scenes Johnston draws.” –Houston Chronicle

“[Johnston is] a master plotter whose wise words sting and stab.”–Entertainment Weekly

“Wayne Johnston is a brilliant and accomplished writer.” –Annie Proulx

“One of our continent’s best writers.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Johnston is an accomplished storyteller, with a gift for both description and character, which he uses masterfully.”–Booklist (starred)

“Johnston [is] capable of fine psychological observation.…His backers ultimately get their money’s worth.”–Atlantic Monthly

“Johnston is an authentic comic genius.... His timing and pacing are impeccable. He knows how to...create laughter out of a wonderful mixture of emotions.” –The Gazette (Montreal)

“A prodigiously talented author.” –The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

Kirkus Reviews
A comic coming-of-age story with a pronounced sting in its tail: the Canadian author's fourth novel, first published in 1994 immediately preceding his international success,The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Narrated in retrospect by Torontonian Henry Prendergast, it's a chronicle of Henry's career as a child TV actor, begun in 1967 with his enactment of the morally contrasting apian presences "Bee Good" and "Bee Bad" on the instantly popular kiddies' show Rumpus Room, conceived, written, and produced by Henry's take-charge mom Audrey. Johnston's genius for understated deadpan hilarity works wonderfully in reactive descriptions of Rumpus Room's inane preachiness-especially those spoken by Henry's saturnine father Peter, a would-be serious novelist who maintains an amused distance from his wife's busy conquest of the upstart medium. For example, his caution that Henry as "Bee Bad" is "a role model for evil people everywhere . . . [and that should Henry commit] any act of decency or kindness, . . . those who looked down to me would be forever disillusioned." Celebrity, modest fortune, and sheer misery at Henry's school follow-as does further success when Audrey maneuvers 13-year-old Henry into starring on the Philo Farnsworth Show, which imagines the youthful adventures of the eponymous inventor of the first television set. Audrey's manipulations extend to Peter's stalled career, and give the increasingly unhappy Henry "this fleeting notion of my mother fixing everything, staging my entire life without my knowing it." Still, this is a comic novel: rifts in the Prendergast family fabric are mended, and Henry achieves a kind of liberation in a weird climax at Maple Leaf Gardens, attended bydisciple-like Philo admirers who have named themselves "Philosophers." It wraps things up neatly, and it's a hoot. A bit overlong, but, still, another beguiling display of the varied wares of one of the most entertaining and likable of contemporary writers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400031979
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/13/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Wayne Johnston is the author of several novels, including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Divine Ryans, and the memoir Baltimore’s Mansion. He was born and raised in Newfoundland and now lives in Toronto.

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Read an Excerpt

I have a complete collection of the early “Rumpus Room” episodes and, watching them, it’s hard to believe that it’s me sometimes, for I’m completely contained by that costume and I never speak. Only because I know that, before 1972, no one else ever played the part am I able to convince myself that it must be me, inside the set, inside the suit, staring out at the future from television land. Television. The Greek word tele means “far off,” and is said to be closely akin to another Greek word, palai, meaning “long ago.” This always seems appropriate when I think of how old I was when I first appeared on the show. For me the early days of television are the early days of everything. Television. Hindsight. Memory. Long ago and far away. When I started playing Bee Good/Bee Bad, I wondered where they had been until now. I was seven and I had a notion that long before TV had even been invented, the world of “Rumpus Room,” with all its inhabitants, had been there, inaccessible, waiting for someone to tap into it. Waiting for Philo Farnsworth, the alter ego of my adolescence, though I didn’t know that then.

What I remember best are not the single scenes, the big, discrete events that happened years apart, but things that happened all the time, the “bits” we kept returning to as though they were all part of some large routine that we were trying to perfect, trying to get down pat before we went our separate ways.

My parents, in that other life, were teachers. My mother taught elementary school, my father high school, but neither one of them could find a regular job so they had to settle for being substitute teachers. Mondays and Fridays, the days that teachers were most likely to call in sick, were their best days. My mother was called more often than my father, the burn-out rate among elementary school teachers being greater than that among high school teachers. My mother was always worried about “The List”; that is, the department of education’s list of substitute teachers. How were names chosen from the List, was there some sort of rating or ranking system for teachers, were names ever dropped from the List? If a few days went by without one or both of them being called, she would start to worry. She wondered if my father’s having a beard might make any difference to how often he was called. Of course it did, my father said, claiming that, opposite his name on the List, the word “beard” appeared in brackets.

We lived on St. Clair Avenue, renting out our basement apartment. We had a succession of cellar dwellers, as my father called them, most of whom stayed only a few months before moving on, often skipping out on their last month’s rent, for people who could do no better than our basement tended not to have much money. Cellar dwellers. That, I knew, was what, in baseball, they called the last-place team. The losers, though in the case of the people who lived downstairs, the loners would have been more like it, for it seemed they were always alone. That, to these people, my father was the landlord, that they were afraid of him, was something I could hardly credit. When the rent was due, they went out of their way to avoid him, often not coming home until late at night, sneaking in to their own apartment as quietly as possible, sneaking out again early in the morning.

There was a man named Doyle, on each of whose hairy forearms an anchor was tattooed, a man about forty-five who would walk around the back yard, smoking cigarettes and drinking from a bottle of beer that, between swallows, he left standing on the picnic table. I would sit out there with him while he paced the yard. He had been the driver of some sort of delivery truck, a bread truck I think it was. He often wore what might have been his uniform, a light-blue shirt, pants slightly darker blue, and still carried in his back pocket, attached to his belt by a chain, one of those conspicuous, ever-bulging wallets, though there could not have been much money in it. He was from out west, had broken up with his wife, who was from Toronto, and was forever announcing his intention to go, at some unspecified time, by some unspecified means, back home.

After Doyle, there was Mr. Colicos, who told us that he had once owned a coin shop. He had a car which he could not afford to operate, leaving it parked across the road from where we lived and going out from time to time, mostly in the afternoon, to sit behind the wheel, smoke cigarettes, watch the goings on, now and then rolling down the window to talk to someone or to shake his fist at a car that he thought was going by too fast.

One woman named Ruth, who had convinced my father she was a secretary, turned out to be a prostitute who, though not herself Portuguese, had, for some reason, an exclusively Portuguese clientele. Ruth’s stay lasted three days, or nights rather. It took a while before my father realized what was going on. We woke, the first night, to an almost surreal combination of sounds: bedsprings squeaking with a mechanical, machine-like rhythm; the song “The Black Velvet Band” being played over and over at what seemed like full volume; a woman’s voice droning “Oh Mario, Oh Mario,” as matter-of-factly as if she were testing a microphone to see if it worked; and, finally, what might have been either a fistfight or some sort of group dance involving an indeterminate number of non-English-speaking men.

That there was no need for them to sneak around this way, that my father would never have hounded them for the rent, was something that most of them never realized. In fact, when they failed to pay it, he was more embarrassed than anything else, often making as much effort to avoid the tenant as the tenant made to avoid him, even though, as my mother reminded him, we needed the rent to meet our payments on the house. His softheartedness, she’d say, would put us in the poorhouse. “You shouldn’t let people take advantage of you,” she’d tell him, to which my father would reply that, if she wanted to collect the rent, she was welcome to do so. At this my mother would retreat.

Cellar dwellers. I thought for a while that every house on St. Clair had one, that it was simply the way of the world. My mother could never get used to them, was never quite able to ignore them as my father advised her to do. She often complained to my father that they were making too much noise. The gall of some people, he’d say, walking around, running water, washing dishes; why, before you knew it, they’d be talking on the telephone. To my mother, that we were unable to meet our mortgage without renting out part of the house was a shameful thing. The cellar dwellers were a constant reminder to her of what she called her disadvantaged childhood and the fate that she seemed to think we were barely keeping one step ahead of, the shame of ending up in someone’s basement. “We could just as easily be them,” she’d say, though this thought, rather than making her feel more sympathetic towards them, seemed to make her more resentful of their presence, as if she believed that, somehow, they might drag us down with them.

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