When I was thirteen or fourteen and my interest in literature was awakening, I used to go to my friend Allen’s house and look at the books on his shelves. Allen was precocious in his tastes and his habits, but I’m sure many of the books he had exceeded his understanding. Can you imagine, for example, a thirteen-year-old reading James Joyce’s Ulysses?
The books were mysterious things. I loved merely holding them, especially the soft, grey or green Penguins. Allen took me down to Toronto’s Soho district on Queen Street between University and Bathurst. The area was filled with used bookshops. I can still remember some of them: About Books, Steven Temple’s, Gail Wilson’s, Abelard’s, Letters. In the mid to late 80s, this strip of Queen Street started to get trendier and trendier, and as the rents went up, the bookshops went away. I don’t know how many of the old ones are still there. When most of them had gone, the city put new street signs calling the area The Fashion District (it was part of the traditional textile district) but most people just called it “Queen West”.
Used bookshops are what I miss most about Toronto, especially all those ones where I made so many discoveries and acquaintances. Shops of that kind are practically non-existent here in Athens. The few I’ve seen are more like junk shops with stacks of mouldy pulp. When I was preparing to leave Canada, I sold all the books I didn’t want to bring with me and bought anything I could find that I thought I’d want Some people we knew were sending a container with furniture to Greece, and we put all my books, at the time at least 1,200 of them, in 26 boxes and shipped them over.
Three books from Allen’s shelves caught my attention and have stayed in my mind. They represented the shocking, subversive quality that books had for me then. They were typed on a typewriter and cheaply printed.
Allen told me they had been published by the author himself, who also sold them on the street. His name was Crad Kilodney.
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I don’t remember the first time I saw Kilodney himself. The earliest book I have is The Blue Book (1985).
Kilodney would stand on the busiest streets in Toronto with a small cardboard sign hanging from his neck. They would read
Pleasant Bedtime Reading
Slimy Degenerate Literature
Dull Stories for Average Canadians
Literature for the Brain-Dead
Worst Selling Author — Buy My Books
Rotten Canadian Literature
Albanian Chicken Stories
Crad Kilodney was born in 1948 in the borough of Queens, New York. He studied astronomy in Michigan and moved to Canada in the early 70s. In 1978 he set up his own imprint, Charnel House, and began selling his books on the street as his sole occupation.
His face was serious, even forbidding to some people who passed by and happened to make eye contact with him. I don’t remember ever feeling intimidated by him or if I spoke to him much the first time I saw him. Soon enough, however, I knew him well enough to stand around and chat with him whenever I saw him. He would complain about how bad business was and gape stupidly at passers-by who ignored him. I remember him once droning, “Hockey books. Hockey books. Get your hockey books.”
Once, a tough-looking teenager passed by as we were talking and shot him a glance.
“You know,” I said when the kid was about five paces away, “I don’t think he’s going to mention to his friends that he saw you today.”
“Are you kidding?” Crad said. “He’s forgotten me already.”
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“If things go bad for me on the street, my mood deteriorates quickly. I’m apt to be simultaneously angry and depressed. My anger goes right to my stomach. I may make fierce eye contact with passers-by, which makes them even less likely to stop. I choose my most provocative or insulting signs to wear when I’m in the most aggressive moods because deep down I want to strangle these people. Most days I make less than $15 on the street. After paying for subway fares, snacks, and groceries, I may return home poorer than when I left the house. I wallow in self-pity. I have very confused ideas about success and failure, which I can’t sort out rationally. I look at the cartons of books at the foot of my bed and wonder how I will ever sell them. I wonder whether it’s worth continuing this way, year after year. Even if I were selling the greatest book ever written my immediate situation wouldn’t change. No book can change the world. No book can change these people. But these people can grind me down by their insensate banality, their stupidity, even their outright hostility. Man looks for hope wherever he can. I have a little hope left, just enough to let me face the street another day. But at this time in my life, hope is fading…”
Crad Kilodney, Excrement, 1988
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Standing on the street all day exposed Crad to all kinds of abusive weirdos. At some point he began to wear a tiny microphone under his shirt collar so that he could record his encounters. I have the first two cassettes. (I think there was a third) On one of them he went to the business district and asked people why the earth has seasons. The answers are astounding.
Crad did not hide the fact that he liked to seek revenge when he felt he had been unjustly treated. In 1988 he published a story called “Who Is John Copping?” in which Kilodney claims to have been hearing the name John Copping everywhere he goes. A teenage girl tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant with John Copping’s child; a mother tells her child to do his homework so he won’t grow up stupid like John Copping; the owner of a strip club tells the bouncer never to let John Copping back in. One day he’s walking past City Hall when he hears the following exchange between two of Toronto’s most illustrious lawyers:
“As you know, Clay, I’m categorically opposed to capital punishment… With one exception.”
“What’s that?” asked Ruby.
“John Copping!” said Greenspan vehemently. “He should be put to death!”
At a supermarket, he sees a sign in the meat-cutting room that says SAVE TAINTED MEAT FOR JOHN COPPING.
When he can stand it no longer, he asks a friend who this John Copping is, and is given a piece of paper. On it, and fully reproduced in Kilodney’s book, is a bad review someone named John Copping had written of three of Crad’s books.
In 1989, after having one of his stories, “Girl on the Subway”, rejected in the first round of a CBC short story competition, he submitted six stories, under pseudonyms and typed up on different typewriters, by writers such as Kafka, Faulkner and O. Henry. He went public with his hoax when every story was rejected.
Around that time he also typed up a manuscript of poems by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most respected poets, and submitted them, again under a pseudonym, to publishers all over the country. They were rejected by everyone, including McClelland & Stewart, Layton’s own publisher.
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As for Crad’s books, it’s difficult for me to discuss or assess them. I have a sentimental blind spot for some of them.
His style is very simple and draws no attention to itself, a sign that he cared about the writing and worked at it. The humour, for the most part, might strike people as immature. Certainly, it’s uneven, especially the later stuff. But there were times when he was brilliant. One of my favourites was “The Man Who Died Of His Opinions”, in Blood-Sucking Monkeys From North Tonawanda (1989), about two psychologists who are studying whether the human brain actually has a limit to its capacity for storing facts. They have a patient, an incredibly annoying bigot and philistine who cannot distinguish between fact and opinion. He has opinions on every conceivable subject, and rants all day long. Eventually, he overloads his brain, and dies. What makes this story so good is the discussions between the two doctors and the perfectly-captured voice of the patient.
Sometimes the humour was very satirical, as in “No Chekhov at Yorkdale”, in which he relates his findings after searching through one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls for a book of stories by Chekhov:
You can buy an assortment of fruit-flavoured bubble baths at The Body Shop for only $17.65. You can spend $99.99 for a skateboard or $24.99 for an anti-theft device for your skis at Collegiate Sports. At Club Monaco you can buy authentic Club Monaco jeans for a mere $49. And at Classic China you can get a lovely bone china chipmunk for $95. But nowere in this Mecca of Mass Merchandising can you acquire a book of stories by the great Russian author Anton Chekhov, the greatest writer of stories who ever lived.
“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” seems autobiographical (except for its grizzly ending, to be sure). It details his dealings with a landlady so obnoxious you’re glad he’s killed her off in the end. There’s a febrile quality to the story that reminds you of Dostoevsky.
But his best works were his serious ones, which also tended to be autobiographical. Cathy (1985), is perhaps my favourite. It’s the story of a girl who comes to rent the basement of his parents’ house, and his doomed love for her. Excrement is based on his journals and his experiences on the street. It’s a nakedly honest, fascinating document. There was a follow-up, Putrid Scum, but by that time, Kilodney’s books had ceased to be enjoyable. The bitterness had got the best of him.
* * * * *
Although one wouldn’t know it from just looking at his books, but one of Kilodney’s biggest influences, by his own admission, was Henry Miller. He has none of Miller’s messy, vacuous philosophising. But he had Miller’s pessimism, and he had a sense of mission as a writer. Writing was very important to Kilodney, and he seems to have been very idealistic about it in the early days. Despite the underground feel of his work, he genuinely wanted acceptance and recognition and to make a difference in the world. But perhaps he also had fallen for the notion of the writer as a tortured, suffering soul. He was a glutton for punishment.
I remember him telling me once about having gone to Calgary for a few days. He had sold far more books on the streets there than he ever managed to in Toronto. Toronto was the worst place for him, and he chose the worst places to stand and sell his books: Yonge Street, with its hordes of consumers and suburban teenagers, and Bay Street, the city’s equivalent of Wall Street. It was precisely because Toronto was the least hospitable place for him that he stayed there for so many years.
In the late 80s and 90s, his bitter resentment had found its way into the writing and most of his later books made even some of his most loyal fans uncomfortable. (“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” was, despite its title, a successful story because he had let his material speak for itself. In the later ones, Kilodney is lashing out, often very offensively. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism in these stories, as well.)
In the end, you can’t help but wonder, if Kilodney had such a strong sense of mission, and took his art and his calling so seriously, why this seriousness wasn’t reflected more in his writing. Most of it was funny, but in an adolscent way, wanting more than anything else, to shock the reader with its outrageousness. No matter how funny it was, it never affected you the way Cathy and Excrement did.
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In 1991 Kilodney was charged with “exposing goods for sale without authority” and later that year (ironically during Arts Week in Toronto), he was convicted in by-law court. Of course, there was no license available for what he was doing. He took the city to court, and lost. He appealed several times. In the mean time, he continued to sell on the street. It had been, after all, his sole occupation for thirteen years.
Then in 1995, Crad told me that his father back in New York had died, and that he had come into an inheritance. He gradually became more and more scarce, and then, without any fanfare, when no one was even paying attention, he was gone. He dropped out. He stopped publishing and stopped selling his books.
There were odd rumours. I read this totally inaccurate account on usenet:
I liked Crad Kilodney’s four-year experiment in Toronto of selling his books on the street. Of course he immediately became homeless. It gave his work a certain edge, let’s say. He had great placards: “Canadian Literature, Cheap. $4.” He was often highly rated and has a cult following, but darn it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the shrubbery.
In fact, Crad still writes from time to time, I think. He’s told me that he has a lot of stuff sitting around that he could still publish. Some of it can be found at his blog.
Since he gave up writing for a living, Crad has been playing the stock market. He enjoys it and it has become a passion. He does quite well. He’s given me tips from time to time, which have always been good. He also likes to compose logic puzzles. He remains very disillusioned with writing. When I was trying to get my first novel published, he told me that trying to get published was like buying a raffle ticket for a microwave; even if you win, your life won’t change much.
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Postscript (15 April 2014)
Nine years have passed since I wrote the above post. I have cleaned up some of the out-of-date additions from over the years and adding what will most likely be the last bit.
Yesterday, after his third bout with cancer, Crad Kilodney died at the age of 66. I wrote to him last October, and he told me that he was seriously ill. I occasionally checked up on him to see how he was doing, and in my last email to him, I mentioned a very successful dichloroaceteate treatment a friend of mine in Toronto was undertaking. Crad’s response was characteristic of him:
I’m not going to hunt for some miracle like a million other desperate people who want to avoid death. If my doctors had any useful ideas, they would have told me. I’m 66 and have finished the important work of my life. I’m not afraid to die.Thank you for thinking of me.
I have been with him every day; he is in and out of consciousness, disoriented, and weak. He is peaceful, in relatively little pain, and wants to go. We thank you for your well wishes and Crad thanks all his readers.
A few hours before he died, she added:
Crad has been more or less unconscious and I am surprised each day that he is still ticking. His wonderful nurses assure me that he is still comfortable and not conscious of the minimal amount of pain he might be feeling; he is still receiving pain management just in case. Crad continually expressed his gratitude for your well wishes up until he was no longer able to speak at all, and I know he wishes to repeat this now.
* * * * *
Crad told me in a letter once that he had given all his papers and his diaries to some university library, or perhaps to the National Library in Ottawa, I can’t remember which. The archive is not to be opened till after his death. I predict that they will be his greatest legacy. I have no doubt that, aside from their literary value, they will prove to be a fascinating document of what was a very unusual life.
* * * * *
Please go to Crad’s blog and read his final published work. It is beautiful.