Robot reviews: George Sprott

George Sprott: 1894-1975by SethDrawn and Quarterly, 96 pages, $24.95.

My father in law passed away earlier this year. He was born in 1929, the son of immigrants, a first-generation American. I often wonder what it was like for him, watching his parents' culture and way of life fade away as he grew up and then watching his own culture and everything he spent his adulthood embracing all but completely eradicated as he passed into old age.

That may be the great curse of the 20th century. Technology and the world has changed so rapidly that we often had little time to turn around and miss whatever was behind us before it got steamrolled over to make room for the new mini-mall. Not that there weren't things that needed paving over, mind you, just that we rarely had time to reflect.

Nostalgia, loss and the unstoppable passage of time are just a few of the central themes to Seth's latest book, George Sprott. Originally serialized in the New York Times in 2007, Seth has revised and expanded the original tale, and wrapped it up in a handsome oversize edition, ultimately forging a profound and moving .

The book focuses on the life of times of its title character, a Canadian TV host, whose sole claim to fame is a few trips he took up north to the cold Canadian wilderness, fancying himself an adventurer. Sprott managed to turn his adventures into a career and spent the rest of his life embellishing and rehashing them, either on his show or on the lecture circuit. By the end he was an obese, tired old man, given to falling asleep on camera and speaking to an increasingly dwindling audience.

We learn about Sprott mostly through the eyes of a variety of characters who talk directly to the reader, documentary style. Co-workers, family members, fans and acquaintances all offer up their stories, aided and abetted by a less-then-trustworthy narrator whose frequent apologies and forgetful lapses become something of a running joke ("As an omniscient narrator, I realize I leave much to be desired.").

In between we get brief snippets from Sprott's life, just enough to get a flavor of the man, such as when he receives the news of his father's death. Sadly, Sprott ultimately comes off as a bore and more than a bit of a bastard. Though he engenders deep love from his niece and fans, his faults are plentiful and glaring (to list them would spoil the story).

It's to Seth's credit then, that Sprott remains a sympathetic and even at times likable character. He makes it clear how Sprott's bad behavior arises from his own insecurities and unwillingness to allow any introspection or self-reflection. Plus, the guy has such a charming air about him that it doesn't seem completely unreasonable that he'd be able to carry a TV show about the Canadian arctic for 30-plus years.

Naturally, a character like George Sprott would never have been able to become a minor celebrity today, a point Seth drives home again and again, reminding us how the modern world has rendered him all but completely forgotten. Sprott pays homage to a time when local TV was as essential as national, and kiddie shows and horror movie hosts were known entities.

Of course, a wistfulness for a bygone era is Seth's stock in trade. He's explored similar themes in works like Clyde Fans, Wimbeldon Green (which this book most closely resembles) and It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken. I admired, however, how Seth was able to enrich and explore those themes more deeply this time around -- this isn't a retread of a familiar tune, but a song given full orchestration until it sounds lush and full of subtle passages you hadn't noticed before.

Seth attempts a number of narrative tricks that are worth noting. I already mentioned the odd narrator. He also, as he did in the recent, oversize Kramer's Ergot, divides up the page into little sub-sections, so that a rumination on the history of the TV station Sprott worked for will have a short, nine-panel interview over to the far right side, while the bottom strip runs portraits of various co-workers. It's an interesting way to break up the page's rhythm. Indeed, Seth seems to be obsessed with making your eyes pause and he tries a variety of tricks -- different colors, different sized panels -- to break your flow. He'll even slow down the book to a near halt to offer a lovely two-page vista or a photograph of one of his cardboard models, built to resemble the buildings Sprott frequents.

It's important to emphasize that this isn't some simpering "oh gosh, life sure was swell then" nostaliga piece -- his wisftulness is well tempered with the knowledge of how such feelings can easily lead to a pathetic bathos, sentimentalism or worse. No, more than anything, George Sprott is a simple and eloquent reminder of how impermenent everything is; how, in the words of Sprott "One day you're 30 years old, and the next, you look up and there's an old man in the mirror." No doubt my father-in-law would have identified with that line. It's a shame I never got to point it out to him.

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