Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada

Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada

by Bruce McCall

His skates were too small. Or they didn't match. Or they were that ultimate humiliation for a boy trying to play hockey--girls' white figure skates. Add to young Bruce McCall's shabby equipment his pencil-thin wrists, weak ankles, and, as he puts it, "a fruit bat's metabolism with a tree sloth's reflexes,"  and you'll understand why he failed so…  See more details below


His skates were too small. Or they didn't match. Or they were that ultimate humiliation for a boy trying to play hockey--girls' white figure skates. Add to young Bruce McCall's shabby equipment his pencil-thin wrists, weak ankles, and, as he puts it, "a fruit bat's metabolism with a tree sloth's reflexes,"  and you'll understand why he failed so dismally in the cold, rough world of neighborhood hockey in Toronto. Bruce's catastrophic career as a rink rat epitomizes the youth he recounts in this funny, moving, sometimes disturbing memoir. In fact, Thin Ice examines a boyhood so filled with failure and disappointment that the comedy and insight its author/survivor wrests from it--like his subsequent career as one of America's most admired humorists and illustrators--seem like miracles.

Bruce McCall's father, T.C., was an inaccessible tyrant. Bruce's mother, Peg, drank to blunt the effect of her husband's rages and to dodge the duties of taking care of six children. Still, Bruce did know some moments of pleasure as a child, especially in the small town of Simcoe, before T.C. moved his family to the dreary outskirts of Toronto: The Second World War offered its awesome matériel and its heroic men, milk bottles grew top hats of cream, and grapes hung free for the stealing in Mrs. Klein's backyard. But his parents' demons took their toll on Bruce, and the move to Toronto set the stage for academic and social disasters: He flunked out of high school and took dead-end graphic-design jobs, all the while envying the full-color culture and high-octane energy of Canada's muscular neighbor to the south.

That envy, combined with Bruce's passion for reading and drawing--one of the few positive bequests from T.C. and Peg McCall--became his refuge and then his salvation. His precocious reverence for The New Yorker magazine led him to invent entire comic worlds of artistic and literary creation. Ultimately, he read, wrote, and drew himself out of pennilessness and despair. Bruce McCall may not have been destined to glide around Madison Square Garden holding the Stanley Cup aloft, but as Thin Ice demonstrates, perseverance and talent can turn crummy ice skates--and even dashed hopes--into dreams come true.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Behind many a humorist lies deep hurt, and McCall (Zany Afternoons), known for his quirky contributions to the New Yorker, here reconstructs a painful childhood in calm Canada of the 1940s and '50s. A move from small-town Simcoe (Ontario) to Toronto, when the author was 12, sundered his family: McCall pre, long a commuter, now seems "less dad to six than star boarder pestered by aliens"; his mother became a "hologram [who] increasingly dabbled in alcoholic spirits." Yet there was a silver lining: McCall's working-class parents took reading seriously, and young Bruce found himself enamored of the drawings, then the prose, of the New Yorker. Here he captures the development of a creative, yearning mind. Postwar advertising from America tantalized him with consumer delights, and the New York Rangers"perennial losers, just like me"became his hockey team. He began work as a commercial artist, moved into journalistic writing, found an American mentor and relocated to Detroit in 1962. On taking leave of Canada, he recalls, "Nobody seemed to have big dreams." It is disappointing that McCall ends his memory feat (but for an epilogue) with his move south; surely there is more to his development as a humorist. (June)
Library Journal
Canadian-born McCall here remembers what appears to have been an unhappy and unsatisfying time on his native heath, attributing it to negligent parents who hated having begotten their six children and to the fact that he could never respond to the "Canadian style""the patience, the mildness, the taste for conformity"which he found stifling. His discontent and embitterment led him to the United States, where he at last found his place in the sun. McCall, an illustrator and writer for such magazines as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, creates the atmosphere of his boyhood, youth, and early manhood with a keen feeling for words, although at times he appears guilty of gross oversimplification of the Canadian character. He seems content now, but his renunciation is not complete, for he has yet, after 35 years of living and working in the United States, to take out citizenship papers. The book does produce a certain sustained interest and is recommended.A.J. Anderson, Simmons Coll., Boston
School Library Journal
YAHumorist McCall (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, etc.) spent his adolescence during the 1950s in a household that was cold, both physically and emotionally. Looking back from his current vantage point of success in both career and psychological health, he vividly recalls his experiences with a tyrannical father; an alcoholic mother; and four brothers who, like him, substituted writing and drawing for their missing parental relationships. The hurts suffered are evoked in detailby an author who, from the outset, appears to readers as a survivor. For that reason this memoir should find a teenage audience, especially among those who have turned to books to escape similar family circumstances. While the facts of McCall's youthand his family in generalare indeed grim, his humor shines through in many passages, making this laugh-out-loud material. Thin Ice would make a good candidate for reading aloud to students whose own reading skills are not equal to their interests and needs. Although the setting is definitely of another time, the pitfalls of ill-fitting sports equipment, overcrowded living quarters, unresponsive school administration, and unreliable parents are recognizable, empathy-inducing situations for contemporary youth at similar risk.Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker humorist McCall (Zany Afternoons, not reviewed) effectively cauterizes his own dysfunctional family with his trademark red-hot, rapier wit.

In short chapters that give a madcap serial reconstruction of a hardscrabble, emotionally deprived childhood in Simcoe, Ontario, circa 1945 (and, later, Toronto and Windsor), McCall, son of an absentee father and alcoholic mother who conveyed the impression that kids had ruined their lives, evokes a young Canadian's sense of inferiority to his US peers in the glory years of WW II and the postwar boom. Lacking its own Empire State Building, Hoover Dam, or Golden Gate Bridge, explains McCall, "Canada declined to soar in any way." Canadian underachievement, combined with McCall's low family self-image, provides ample fuel for his rabid drollery: "A rotten start," he muses, "I don't know where I'd be today without it." Drawing at the refuge of his bedroom desk, McCall exercised a dawning artistic consciousness fed by comics, cartoons, and magazine illustrations, and reveled in the grand entertainment of the war, a "triple header" of news and propaganda streaming from Ottowa, Washington, and London; in news about "flash" American fighter planes; and in his own noble sacrifices on the home front, including the use of Soya Spread (a ghoulish synthetic peanut butter substitute). He loses momentum in reviewing his gradual departure from the wondrously twisted family nest to spend the mid-'50s as a failed commercial illustrator for Detroit—a waste, he says, but probably inevitable; it was a safe place to lie low while sorting things out and waiting for the master plan of his career to be revealed. Ultimately, a passion for automobiles led to a succession of editorial jobs with the Canadian car rags, and—presto!—to this keen subversive's inevitable discovery of a writerly vocation that fits like a glove.

McCall is always amusing, but his survivalist comic viewpoint is instructive, too, as a model for overcoming truly miserable circumstances.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.41(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.12(d)

What People are saying about this

Christopher Buckley
Bruce McCall is�one of the funniest writers of satire in America. With this book, he proves that he is a master of the�memoir.
—(Christopher Buckley)
P. J. O'Rourke
He has written his story brilliantly, wonderfully�Thin Ice raises the sunken treasure of everybody's memories.
—(P.J. O'Rourke)

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