301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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Book Review: At the World’s Edge: Curt Lang’s Vancouver, 1937-1998 by Claudia Cornwall

Much has already been said about this book. Visit the publisher’s website and check out the links to reviews. The list is probably twice as long as this piece. But then, this is one of those books that deserves a lot of attention.

Curt Lang sounds to have been an amazing human being. He came of age during the ’50s and ’60s, a time of crazily shifting values and change. A self-taught poet, photographer, builder of boats and (even) inventor of computer devices, Lang seems to have epitomized the innately brilliant, fast-talking, hitchhiking intellectual so romanticized as evocative of that era and of the Beats.

It’s clear that he was capable of engaging the great and the not-so-great in wild projects, schemes and dreams. As a teenager, he fixed on Malcolm Lowry, found out where he lived, walked across the Second Narrows Bridge and introduced himself. He took similar paths with both Al Purdy and Irving Layton. Brash is a word that comes to mind, but his brashness came with substance – a mind that fired on all cylinders coupled with a memory that clung to whatever he read.

Author Claudia Cornwall not only studied Lang, she knew him as a friend. While she brings a wealth of material – perhaps too much – to the book, I’m not altogether sure she always applies the objective distance one would expect of her background in journalism. At the end of her introductory notes, she offers that he’s “hard to capture.” Over the course of the rest of the book she occasionally admits to being hesitant about revealing negative aspects of the man, though in fairness the character she portrays is far from perfect. It comes through clearly that he wasn’t always easy to get along with, was sometimes a fuck’em-and-leave’em kind of guy.

I’ll admit that while she had me hanging on nearly every word for the first two-thirds of the book, once her Curt ‘grew up’ he became less appealing. Or, maybe it’s just all the back-story she includes that got in the way of my enjoyment. The breathless recklessness of his youth had carried me along on its crest; the mundanities of break-ups, relatives, money troubles and business plans let me down and sometimes bored me.

While I can’t fault her for being thorough, I can wish there’d been more of Lang’s photographs. As is, there’s a portfolio of his photos that were taken in 1972. Even though this section of the book comprises nearly fifty delicious pages, it isn’t enough to satisfy me. As Cornwall states about his images, “Much of what Curt photographed is gone now. I remember him saying that he would take a picture of a building or a house only to discover a week later that it had been demolished.” And this is certainly one of the values of this book – and of this important series on ‘forgotten artists’ which serves as a veritable heritage project in print.

One of the many interviewees Cornwall spoke with referred to Lang as “the Neal Cassady of Vancouver.” And I guess that’s the Lang I wanted more of.

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