Paul Quarrington embraced life and art to the end

Most writers would be happy to have had half the career that Paul has enjoyed. But he was never just a writer.

Paul Quarrington (Photo by Tom Sandler/Getty Images)

Today we lost a prodigious talent and one of the sweetest, funniest guys you’d ever want to share a beer with. Paul Quarrington died at home early this morning surrounded by his family. He was 56. Paul was a novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker, songwriter and musician. He was also a friend, someone I’d known casually for many years. But I had never grasped his range and power as an artist until recently. After being diagnosed with lung cancer last May, he turned his final months on this earth into a brave and singular  public performance—a life-and-death opportunity to nourish his creativity as a writer and musician with every last breath.  But we didn’t expect to lose him quite so soon. I’d fully expected  to see him fronting his band, the Pork Belly Futures, at a Toronto pub on the Danforth tomorrow night. Once again, he’d be at the microphone with his oxygen tank, making us laugh and cry—breaking our hearts with a new song he’d written about his fate and wrestling a curious insight out of the darkness, which he always kept at writerly remove, like a fish on the line. Paul had an almost courtly approach to death. And at the rate he was going, with a damn-the-torpedoes embrace of life, you began to feel the performance would never end. (For a documentary glimpse of Paul and his music, see the video at the end of this post.)

Paul Quarrington was best known as novelist. He wrote with a voice that was all his own, a sly combination of wit and warmth. His most recent book, The Ravine (2008) was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; his previous novel, Galveston (2004) was short-listed for the Giller.  Paul won the Stephen Leacock Medal for King Leary, which also won the 2008 Canada Reads competition. Whale Music won the 1989 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and was adapted as a memorable feature film, starring Maury Chaykin as a reclusive rock star. He was also a prolific screenwriter for both TV and movies. He won a Genie for co-writing the film Perfectly Normal (1991), a whimsical swirl of opera, hockey and romance that busted open the narrow horizons of English Canadian cinema. He left his signature on  films such as Men With Brooms and Camilla, and TV shows ranging from  Due South to Power Play. He directed short films. He also found the time to elevate the art of journalism in newspapers and magazines with his droll candour, most recently via a series of articles in the National Post about confronting cancer. And he was creating with prolific eloquence as long as he could draw a breath. As well as  recording fresh material with his band, in his remaining months he cut a solo album. He was working on a screenplay, a novel and a memoir, meeting deadlines as if his life depended on it.  He delivered a screenplay for a TV series a week before his death, and handed in the final revisions for his memoir on the weekend.

Most writers would be happy to have had half the career that Paul has enjoyed. But he was never just a writer. He was a kind of rock’n’roll renaissance gent. For such a modest and sensitive guy, he was a man’s man. He fished. Seriously fished. He kept up a regular poker night with his buddies. He was father to two daughters, Flannery and Carson, and though he and his wife, Dorothy Bennie, were divorced, the family remained close.

Paul was a lifelong musician. He wrote a number-one single, Baby and the Blues (1980) with Martin Worth, toured and recorded with the legendary Joe Hall and the Continental Drift. During a break between sets at a Pork Bellies gig  last summer, we stood outside on a balmy night and I asked Paul if, given the time left to him, he felt more compelled to play music or write,  and he said the music felt more important. To hear him sing, delivering so much soul from those scarred lungs, you could understand why.

Sometimes you never really appreciate the measure of someone until he’s gone. But with Paul we had that opportunity when  an extraordinary tribute to him took place at Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors last October. Deeply sad but hilariously funny, it was one of the most moving, and entertaining, events I’ve ever attended. It was part concert, part living memorial, part roast. It’s as if Paul, in a masterstroke of creative energy, had arranged to attend his own funeral. One after another, a Who’s Who of artists stepped up to play tribute, which largely consisted of telling priceless stories—Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood, John Krizanc, Dave Bidini, Paul Gross, Nino Ricci David Bezmogis. . . . . .to name a few.

For the first time, I got a real sense of just how far and wide Paul Quarrington’s world went. Everyone who spoke seemed to have adopted, or been infected by, his particular sense of humour. Krizanc told a remarkable story of how he discovered that Paul was working for him at the Book Cellar, a now-defunct independent bookstore in Yorkville. Quarrington conned his way into the job by telling each of the two owners that the other hired him. One of the fledgling writer’s first tasks was to dispose of remaindered copies of his own novel. One day he was asked to order copies of the latest novel by Margaret Atwood. But because the Book Cellar was behind on payments, the publisher refused to provide them. So Paul called up the publisher’s marketing department and ordered 50 dust jackets of the Atwood novel “for a store window display.” He then wrapped the Atwood dust jackets around 50 copies of  an American potboiler—Tom Clancy, John Grisham, I can’t recall. Apparently, they all got sold, and only two were returned.

Quarrington, of course, told a few of his own jokes that day, and sang a few of his own songs. He invited the audience to join his double entendre-rendition of Blame it On My Youth; said he’d always wanted to be a jazz singer. As he made us laugh and poured his heart out, and our tears forgot which emotion they were attached to, I don’t think there was a person in the room who, at least for a fleeting moment, didn’t envy him. Which is the sort of irony Paul would appreciate.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.