R.B. Fleming’s recent life of Peter Gzowski may not be the worst biography I have ever read. It is, nevertheless, quite bad.
Fleming manages to write with clarity about Peter Gzowski, a titan of Canadian journalism and radio, and his archival research has been prodigious. He appears to have read every article (no matter how insignificant), watched every TV special (no matter how cringe-inducing), and listened to every radio program (almost all of which were flawless) that Gzowski was ever involved with. And he has unearthed something previously unknown about Gzowski’s personal life: In the 1960s, married with children, Gzowski fathered a child with another woman.
But here is where the problems begin. Rather than integrate the story of Gzowski’s illegitimate son into the general biographical narrative, Fleming sequesters it in a separate, final chapter. In doing so, of course, he created the journalistic splash he was aiming for. But he also manages to draw attention to how devoid of personal insight the rest of his book is.
Consider: In the larger sweep of Gzowski’s life, the story of his secret child has little significance. Gzowski remained friends with the boy’s mother and supported her, yet he rarely saw the child as a boy, and never visited his grandchild later. But in areas that dominated Gzowski’s life, Fleming is virtually silent. Gzowski’s first wife, Jennie Lissaman, is little more than a shadow in Fleming’s book, her presence reduced to the woman who bore Gzowski’s children and cooked his meals. There is little description of what Peter might have found attractive about her, what they might have found in common, how tensions arose in their relationship, why they divorced when they did. While Gzowski’s illegitimate child gets an entire chapter, his five children from Jennie are barely mentioned. Some get no more mention than a listing of their names and the year they were born.
The reasons for this perverse approach to Gzowski’s personal life are obvious: Fleming was unable to gain the confidence of the Gzowski family, who refused to cooperate with his project. I think this was a mistake on the family’s part, though understandable. Their misgivings about Fleming’s professionalism have been amply borne out.
Even worse is the material that Fleming has stuffed into the gaping hole left by Gzowski’s absent family. Instead of narrative, we get entire chapters filled with laundry lists of articles he wrote or edited for various publications. Gzowski might have been the terrific print journalist Fleming claims he is, but you’d never know from this book. Each and every piece of published writing Gzowski came into contact with – no matter how trivial or dated – is given the “Fleming treatment”: a one or two-sentence summary that makes little effort to sift, evaluate or contextualize.
What little analysis exists suffers from a common editor’s complaint: telling rather than showing. According to Fleming, Gzowski was a great editor who pushed his writers in unexpected directions and improved their skills. Is this true? Well, Fleming has managed to string together a series of quotations from friends and colleagues who repeat this point, sometimes almost verbatim. But not one of them offers a concrete example or anecdote to actually illustrate it.
When anecdotes do appear in the book, they are almost invariably tedious or irrelevant. One of the longest involves a game of golf, where Gzowski was apparently competitive and prone to stretching the rules in his favour. In my experience, that description covers almost every male golfer I’ve come into contact with. Fleming apparently believes it reveals something of the “dark” side to Gzowski, an allegedly surly character and serial exaggerator. (On this last point, which is a recurrent theme in Fleming’s book, the author dwells at greatest length on the various permutations and implausibilities of Gzowski’s childhood memories. Aren’t childhood memories – by their very nature – unreliable? Is this really news?)
And yet despite the book’s many flaws, something of Gzowski’s magical, melancholy character comes through, just as it did for years over the airwaves. It’s a shame that a man who meant so much to millions of Canadians was cursed with such a pedestrian biographer.