Toronto Reads

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The Unexpected and Fictional Career Change of Jim Kearns

David Munroe
Dundurn Press,
$21.99 trade paperback

April 2006

Unexpected but not so fictional

The Unexpected and Fictional Career Change of Jim Kearns may be the perfect novel to kick off this column about Toronto-related books. For one thing, it takes place in this city. I don’t think author David Munroe ever mentions the fair town’s name, but it’s obvious his protagonist’s family dwells in one of our established neighbourhoods that our overheated real-estate market is causing to turn over so quickly.

Munroe has pegged not only our residential enclaves but the whole city as the Jim Kearns of the title works on construction and shops around town. For the Toronto reader it can be a bit of a game to figure out which of the local references are genuine (King and Queen Sts., the Annex, and so on) and which are thinly disguised with new names.

Kearns is an unusual lead character for a literary work, a 45-year-old working-class man with a quick, sarcastic wit and a temper that gets him into punch-ups with anyone who tangles with him.

A bizarre confrontation with a movie star during a film shoot on a Toronto street gets him fired from the only job he’s known since flunking out of university two decades earlier. His long-suffering wife, Maddy, gives him a list of tasks he must undertake to grow as a human being—shades of TV's My Name is Earl, except Kearns’s list is shorter. He has to bond with their neglected two kids, get to know a neighbour, renovate the third floor, and accomplish four other goals, including “Surprise yourself!”

Don’t expect earth-shattering revelations to come quickly as Kearns sets about remaking himself. It’s all rather low key. Some of the best passages concern his supposed Bible studies (resulting from another of Maddy’s instructions) with an elderly neighbour who tends to ramble on about years long gone but who somehow puts Kearns's problems in perspective.

Munroe has a humorous chatty style, sometimes too loose in my opinion although the word “hilarious” seems to crop up a lot in readers’ comments on this novel. He also has an annoying habit of having his narrator spell out and underline the significance of every narrative turn, leaving insightful readers to get very little more from the story than what we see.

The East York-dwelling author also puts a lot of himself in the novel— literally. A character down the street from Kearns has published a collection of stories, just as Munroe did before this novel, featuring one with which the real-life author won the Toronto Star short story contest and which is apparently reprinted here. The fictional Kearns once also tried his hand at writing a screenplay, part of which is duly reproduced in the novel and I’d lay even odds that it’s Munroe’s own old work. Recycle and reuse has always been a writer’s motto.

The Unexpected and Fictional Career Change of Jim Kearns is an enjoyable, light read that’s not particularly unexpected and perhaps not all that fictional. All decent and easy-going charm on the surface with a repressed violence underneath. But that too is very Toronto, very Canadian.

— Eric

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The Unexpected and Fictional Career Change of Jim Kearns
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