By James Houston
McClelland & Stewart, 278 pp.
Zigzag is true to its name. An armchair journey through the intriguing life of Canadian artist, author, and bon vivant, James Houston, Zigzag treads a path full of twists and turns. Alas, it meanders, without offering any sort of road map or even a compass, such that readers emerge at trail’s end replete with good stories but also disoriented, slightly dizzy, and wondering, “Now, what was that all about?”
If the purpose of reading Zigzag were solely to experience an author’s writerly talents, this book would disappoint, with prose that sometimes flows only to snag on stilted phrases, an absence of structure, and oft-repeated adjectives like “wonderful” or “famous”. The author’s life stories tumble through Zigzag’s pages like shards of northern river ice at spring breakup, divided into an astounding 100 chapters of uneven quality, some of them a paltry third of a page, others an epic eight pages, and few in harmony with each other.
Fortunately, while Zigzag is not Houston’s literary masterpiece (the author has more than twenty-six books to his credit), Houston has another gift to offer here: an inspired life so rich and varied that any account of it would be compelling. And in Zigzag the ring of authenticity, a gentle and spirited humour, and Houston’s sheer zest for life, overcome all flaws. If readers can put up with the lack of a cohesive theme and accept the book for what it is — a series of barely-connected, short tales bursting with light and colour — Zigzag is well worth the snippets of time it takes to read each chapter.
Zigzag takes up Houston’s life in 1962 as he leaves his beloved Canadian Arctic and Inuit friends, something he describes as “the most difficult thing I ever had to do.” Houston spent twelve years as a Northerner in the Northwest Territories with his first wife and John and Sam, the sons to whom he dedicates the book. As a government bureaucrat, Houston soared far above and beyond the call of duty, laying the very bedrock for the globally-renowned Inuit sculpture and print art industry that continues to thrive. As the book opens, Alma and their sons have left for England, and Houston has accepted a design job with Steuben Glass in New York. The sorrow hinted at in this change of life soon blows over, to be replaced by a series of vignettes in which a Northerner from one of the most isolated places in the world evolves into a man-about-town in one of the world’s greatest cities.
Houston’s New York comes through as oddly old-fashioned, as if written not from impassioned memory but from a diary placed in storage and, later, unearthed at a publisher’s request. Houston draws himself as a sweet northern bumpkin who is taken under the wing of Steuben Glass chief Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., a powerful patron who not only gives him a dream job, but who directs him to the most fashionable of digs, helps him to dress appropriately, and then introduces him into a sparkling circle of American luminaries and socialites. Yet Houston’s account, which could so easily have descended into name-dropping or opportunistic comedy, is unfailingly gracious, entirely lacking in cynicism, and almost courtly — even when Houston describes a “girl” next door with whom he sings in the adjacent shower stall one morning and then, that evening, to whom he gives a shirtless massage over cocktails.
Zigzag frequently takes readers back to his heartland in the north, sometimes in person, at other times in memory. In each account, he shares his worries about the effect on the Inuit of modern satellite television and commerce, and the growing suicide rate among young Inuit: “Canadians from the South, who had nothing but good will toward these nomadic, Arctic people and their decent, Spartan way of life, helped, as I did, to unhinge their delicately balanced system of living,” laments Houston.
There are also many descriptions of how Houston created different pieces of art, including a spectacular sculpture in Calgary’s Glenbow-Alberta Art Museum, the 100th Anniversary Awards for the National Geographic Society, and more than 100 pieces of Steuben glass.
Houston transcends all his other yarns when he writes simply about the Connecticut farm, Letfern, that he and his second wife Alice owned for thirteen years: “By the end of February, the sun rose blearily through the haze behind the sugar maples. Alice and I would sometimes sit in winter parkas on the wide front steps of the farm… [and] talk about which maple trees we planned to tap, using first dry, then the greenest wood that we could find. Such are the romantic plans that part-time farmers thrill to make as they, too, feel the spring sap rising in their bones,” he recalls of those days.
Throughout the peripatetic experience of Zigzag the scenery is charming, the characters fascinating, and the adventure highly entertaining. ButZigzag would be so much more satisfying if it also conveyed a more cohesive vision of who this extraordinary Canadian is and what mattered most to him. A timeline to help readers navigate the hows, wheres, and whens would have been helpful. Nevertheless, despite the confusion that aptly-named Zigzag inflicts on readers, it is a remarkable account of a man who lives out the adventures about which so many of us merely dream.