Something to be Learned

Reviewed by Gabrielle Mills

Heather O’Neill’s Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from My Father, the print version of her 2017 Canadian Literature Centre Kreisel Lecture, is in some ways strange. Strange because it reads less like a biography of the late Buddy O’Neill, which it is, and more like an absurd instruction manual for living. Stranger still is the wisdom shared; although Buddy’s advice is never categorically wrong, it is often preposterous and abstract. Despite the strangeness of it all, O’Neill generously translates her father’s eccentricities and antics into a reflection on how much and how little one can learn from a parent, and how that learning is complicated by class and circumstance.

Readers of O’Neill’s novels will recognize Montreal’s streetscapes and street performers, but it is Buddy and his cast of mostly real, occasionally imagined friends—bank robbers and respected old-timers who, like him, make the most out of sharing food and exaggerating stories—who are explored intimately. O’Neill’s character study of her father connects the thirteen lessons and is an effective foil for O’Neill’s coming of age and development as a writer. O’Neill wonders at one point whether it is because she read a lot as a child that she had the literary skills to appreciate her father’s friends, or if it was these characters that “caused [her] to read books in a different way.” Regardless, Buddy and his friends are extolled generously through metaphor and memory.

Occasionally, O’Neill’s tone changes abruptly and she interrupts the narrative to lambaste her father’s foibles. These interludes are brief but poignant, as Buddy is revealed to be at once an excellent baker and an overeager bar brawler, brandishing a broken bottle of ketchup. These moments are infrequent but necessary. The verve and affection with which O’Neill retells her father’s escapades risk obscuring some of the sombre truths and hardships present in her father’s life. These asides necessarily complicate an otherwise romanticized retelling of Buddy’s experiences with poverty, and contextualize instances that demonstrate the class anxiety that shapes O’Neill’s relationship with her father.

As the Montreal that Buddy knows drifts further from O’Neill’s own experiences as an upwardly middle-class writer, O’Neill and her father are like overlapping circles slowly separating into a Venn diagram with fewer shared experiences and strange encounters. This separation is made painfully finite as O’Neill reflects on Buddy’s death. While Wisdom in Nonsense reads like a Bildungsroman, it also reads like a eulogy, chronicling tender moments but only alluding to uncomfortable truths. O’Neill’s coda claims that “sometimes there is nothing left to learn,” and though Wisdom in Nonsense offers few revelations—it is a relatively straightforward text about a father-daughter relationship—it generates space for learning. The concluding pages invite readers to record lessons from their own fathers “because their words, for better or worse, are unforgettable.” Wisdom in Nonsense is similarly unforgettable. O’Neill elicits belly laughs and makes space for the quiet sadness of loving parents who will always be complicated to learn from and to remember.

This review “Something to be Learned” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 166-167.

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