“There’s three things that separates a man from all the other animals. One, he’s got thumbs. Two, he knows there’s a future. And three, he can lie like a sonovabitch!”
That’s a line from a play called “Pumpkin” that Paul Quarrington wrote sometime in the late 1970’s.
It was about a bunch of guys from Timmins or North Bay or Sudbury who had come to Toronto to see a Leafs game, a game in which the home team’s Ian Turnbull had scored five points.
According to the NHL record book, that would make it the night of February 2, 1977 when Turnbull racked up the most points ever for a defenseman in a 9-1 thrashing of the Detroit Red Wings. It’s a record that still stands.
The boys have been celebrating in the closed club car of a CN passenger train as it carries them home through the Northern night, back to crummy jobs and uncertain futures that have been momentarily erased by the historic moment they’ve just witnessed. Drinking the only alcohol they can find, somebody’s homemade bottle of fermented pumpkin, they pass the hours telling each other lies.
I don’t know if the play has ever been produced. I don’t know if it’s even been published. What I do know is that, like the river of work that flowed out of Paul over the next 30 years of his life, it was rich with reality, layered with endless imagination and just a whole lot of fun to wallow in.
I got to spend a week with “Pumpkin” when it was workshopped by the Factory Theatre not too long after the date on the calendar it marked. We’d gone through about a dozen new plays during the theatre’s season as the Artistic Director tried to winnow submissions down to those that would make up the coming season and it was just the next one on the pile.
Workshopping plays was a great gig for an actor, because even if you were doing a show that night, Actors Equity required that you get a second pay check.
But you also got to work with the writer in helping his baby learn to walk. There were no performance deadlines or expectations. You could try things dozens of different ways to figure out what clicked and what didn’t. The writer got to hear his words spoken by real people and could revise them overnight or on the fly. And maybe most important for everybody --- you got to be part of creating something new.
Paul was about my age, an easy going and unassuming guy who’d written a book he was trying to get published and was into music. He said he’d never written a play before and wasn’t sure if what he’d done was how you did it. And even though the concept of Canadian plays was little more than a half dozen years old at the time and we didn’t really know much more than he did, he said he felt humble to be chosen to work with such “veterans”.
I remember glancing up at him as we “veterans” struggled through the first cold table reading. We didn’t know where the thing was going, hadn’t yet got a handle on the tone or the tempo. I’m sure we made it sound far more confusing and formless than it was. But when I looked at Paul, he was beaming from ear to ear. I don’t think I’d ever seen a man look happier.
Later as we wrestled with a scene that just didn’t work, I registered his expression again. It was as if he was in physical pain.
But for the next week, he was tireless in trying new things, polishing moments or making us understand what he’d been after in the writing. His good humor was bottomless. And while a workshop can be Hell for a writer and I’d seen others frustrated and bereft of ideas on what should be done, he never once backed away from attacking the material again and again.
On the final day, we did a full “performance”. Paul had a great laugh that echoed around the theatre as we made our way through the play. But it wasn’t the laughter of a writer enjoying his own creation. It was an honest appreciation of what had been brought to his work by others.
In the end, there was something about “Pumpkin” that Paul still wasn’t happy with and he wanted to hold it back and work on it a while longer. I don’t know if he ever did.
Because not long afterward, Paul began to get noticed. He wrote a novel called “Home Game” that is one of the best books about baseball ever written.
And he wrote “Whale Music” which Penthouse magazine called “The best book about Rock and Roll ever written.”
And he wrote “King Leary”, which anybody will tell you is the best book about hockey ever written.
He went on to write a lot of other great books and some great movies and some great television and a lot of great songs. He won all kinds of awards and prizes and got incredibly famous. But he stayed that easy-going guy with a wonderful smile and a big laugh and endless enthusiasm.
A year ago, just prior to being diagnosed with terminal Lung Cancer, Paul wrote “The Ravine” which he described as semi-autobiographical. "It's about a writer who squanders his talents in television, drinks too much, screws around and ruins his marriage. The reason it's 'semi-autobiographical' is the guy's name is 'Phil.'"
Paul Quarrington died yesterday. But that quote from “Pumpkin” perfectly sums up his life for me.
Right to the end, he used his thumbs and the rest of his digits to write not one but two different screen versions of “The Ravine”.
Even though the doctors said he had no future, he knew he had audiences waiting and recorded and toured with his band.
And in suggesting he had “squandered his talents” he continued to lie like a sonovabitch.