Boy Wonders by Cathal Kelly

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Loved the heck out of this one!

I’ll admit though, I was pretty hesitant at first to be reading a memoir from a man about his coming of age, especially taking into account the day I started reading most of it, for it was on a day, where repeated again yet so sadly decades apart, we bore witness once again to the evisceration of a woman brave enough to come forward against one more man desperate to retain power and was backed by all those other old white men desperate to cling to their entitlement. (sorry rant over) So was I going to care about Kelly’s stories? Were they going to be something that had me rolling my eyes into the deep recesses of my brain? But…this was a memoir about a boy coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s. Those were my times too and I really wanted to read this one because of that.

But no eye rolling here because Kelly sure did put a smile on my face! That smile was planted on my face for most of the entire time spent reading Boy Wonders. I laughed so hard so many times! Kelly writes with such humour and ease, I was marking many, many pages so delightfully and finely told.

The chapters have titles like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Television, Music, etc. and in each contain how certain popular culture moments in those years shaped his life and how his memories were influenced by them.  I was laughing out loud at so many of them, like the one on Television and how not having cable put you into a category of the have nots with your schoolyard peers. Without cable you couldn’t watch American TV shows, and he specifically talks about one show, a three-part miniseries V, and the schoolyard being abuzz about it:

“You had one chance at V. After that, there would be two types of people in the world – those who have seen V and those who did not matter….After the first episode, kids would come to school early just to talk about it. And it sounded fucking amazing. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened. Like you were there at the birth of Christ, but with aliens. There was a bit in it where one of the aliens…eats a hamster. Puts it in her mouth and eats it. Nobody had ever done anything that interesting on The King of Kensington.”

And then comes the day when cable makes its blessed debut in his home, “Cable was even better than I’d dreamed….I arranged my life around the broadcast schedule – Family Ties; Miami Vice; The A-Team; Magnum P.I.; Knight Rider. I spent entire days watching music videos. I spent many hundreds of hours in front of the TV and I regret not one minute of it.”

Doesn’t the mention of those shows bring back awesome memories? I smiled wide. He also talks about the day of the Challenger disaster in 1986, saying “I remember that day perfectly.”

Don’t you? I do. I remember seeing that horrific scene broadcast over and over and over again.  “It’s seldom that you get the chance to match a distant memory of childhood directly against the historical record. Perishingly few things register that deeply.”

And the chapter, Hair, is one definitely not to be missed! I probably looked ridiculous sitting outside on my break at work laughing and giggling. Remember French Formula hairspray? His story of it is hysterical.

but not all of Kelly’s stories are filled with fun and games – he does talk about his fractured and fraught relationship with his father and how his parents divorce when he was quite young affected him. About his father he realized when he was eleven years old that, “something wasn’t quite right with him” (that’s grossly paraphrased).

He has very poignant and lovely things to say about the meaning of life and what that has to do with the lifelong pursuit of being a reader and the love of books. He was at a reading by Umberto Eco. Eco was talking about his vast library and if he’s read all the books in his personal library,

“…the implication being that someone who’d done that was a person of immense accomplishment. To the visitor, the library was a trophy, the visible evidence of learning. ‘Of course I haven’t read them all,’ Eco said he’s told the man. ‘If I had, why would I keep them?” That line hit me like a lightning bolt. That was the purpose of life. Not accumulating knowledge, or rounding out an area of expertise or building a collection. But recognizing that for some people who come to it early and without being forced, life is a long search for the next great book.” 

He continues to talk about his love of reading in the chapter titled, Lord of the Rings. His aunt gave him a copy and after starting and putting it aside so many times, he finally got it (and this is what my son has been trying so often to get me to do – read Lord of the Rings and love it the way he (and Kelly) does. ;-)) saying, “It wasn’t the story that got to me. It was its detail…He wasn’t pulling you through it. He was planting you in the middle of it and pointing out every single thing. Tolkien taught me that we are not trapped in this world. We can construct our own. You felt his guiding hand in it. 

Like all the art that has hit me the hardest, the narrative was about outcasts and loners finding each other. Despite the creature-y aspect, it’s a love story and a tale of redemption. The good guys win, but they suffer in the effort. That’s what Tolkien was saying. That reached me.” 

I did however feel he ended his story quite abruptly. We hear throughout these brief snippets of his forty-year-old self, but not enough detail on how his coming of age led him down the path to where he is at now. I wanted more details on what he does now for a living and how his childhood may have led him there. Yes, at the back on the author profile it says he’s a sports columnist for The Globe and Mail, but there wasn’t much sharing of that journey towards the end of the book – perhaps he wanted to keep it framed in his childhood, but I would have liked to have read more of it impacted and shaped his adulthood.

I do hope Kelly ventures into writing fiction one day though. He has such a great flow and ease to his writing – comedic for sure – but there were also many wonderfully written and poignant moments that have me wishing for a work of fiction from him. Boy Wonders was the right book to read at this time for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it and again, it brought many smiles to my face!