Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Review: Terry

Douglas Coupland
Douglas & McIntyre 176 pages $28.95

I was fifteen when Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope, and, it shames me to admit, I didn’t pay much attention to his monumental efforts. Cancer was something that only old people got, guys with prosthetic limbs were to be pitied, not lionized, and everybody knew that marijuana didn’t give you lung cancer, so what did I care? These are the myths I, and most people my age at the time, lived under. My world is very different now, as is yours.

At age forty, cancer is something I think about more and more often. I have lived through the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, but lost an early lover to the damned disease, recently buried my father, taken by heart failure, won my own battles with addictions, and, generally, grown up. Like other new 40somethings, I check for lumps, try not to live on potato chips and Diet Coke, exercise when there’s nothing else to do, and avoid hydro towers – and yet, three of my friends have had cancer scares in the last five years. Terry Fox’s life is suddenly very real.

How fitting, then, that Douglas Coupland, the popularizer (and scourge) of all things related to my generation, has crafted Terry, a beautiful and heart breaking scrapbook chronicling Fox’s life and, perhaps more important, the massive, nation-wide obsession Fox’s run spawned – a media and public event that forever changed how we talk about cancer.

Just think back to 1980. Everybody smoked, in elevators, movie theatres, and offices. I remember ashtrays in my G.P.’s waiting room. Everybody lived on fried food, drove drunk, and worked in factories without protective gear. In my home, you didn’t say “cancer” out loud. It was shameful, like mental illness. When one of my mother’s friends got “the cancer”, my father called it “c”, afraid to say the whole word. And forget about prostate exams or asking your doctor to check your breasts for lumps. What’s a prostate?

Terry Fox changed all that, overnight. As Coupland’s book illustrates, nobody could shush or shame away a handsome young man with one leg. Fox’s openness, charming combination of vulnerability and athletic prowess, and, let’s face it, TV star good looks, made our reluctance and misplaced discretion over cancer seem not only silly, but offensive. Here was this adorable guy, running across the country on one leg, sweating like an Olympian, to fight a sickness many Canadians considered bad taste to discuss. Even if Terry Fox had raised only ten dollars, his contribution to cancer research would still be lasting, because he made it OK for ordinary people, especially men, to talk openly about their frailties, their bodies and even their fears – and for that we owe him the kind of tribute Coupland has assembled.

Although it is as thorough and reverent as any celebratory coffee table biography, I hesitate to call Terry a hagiography, because the price and value of saints has cheapened lately - and because Coupland wisely avoids any holy schmaltz.

Instead, Coupland pairs heroic, tear-inducing mass media photos of Fox’s struggle with more clinical, even cold images of Fox’s personal belongings (sweat pants, torn socks, a diary), thus negating any sense that he is assembling a morbid reliquary. Coupland packs his honest homage with images of Fox as “just an ordinary Canadian guy”, as a typical, tee-shirt wearing university jock goofing off in family snapshots, his mop of hair unfettered by combs. Many of these private pictures have never been seen publicly, and will do a great deal to stamp out the growing image of Fox as a superhuman, and thus remote, hero - an image that only separates him from the rest of us and therefore makes his courage unavailable to lesser mortals. Throughout his marathon, Fox repeated one message: I am not special, I’m just doing a special thing. And you can do it too.

Early in Terry, Coupland uncovers a blurry snapshot of Fox visiting a family in Come By Chance, Newfoundland. The family gave Fox and his friend Doug a place to sleep and a meal, way before the national media had picked up on Fox’s journey (which, typically, it didn’t notice until he hit central Canada).

In the photo, Fox stands behind a large cake with white icing, surrounded by big-haired local girls invited from the high school to entertain the boys. Fox looks like the cat that ate the pet shop. Cake and cute chicks!

I love this picture, because it shows me the Terry Fox behind the bronze statues and commemorative loonies – a real, live guy with a naughty smile (and hormones). Douglas Coupland isn’t varnishing Fox’s memory, he’s giving us back its flesh and blood.