Sometimes I discover a new author at the perfect time. On this particular occasion, it was finding Terry Fallis during the federal election here in Canada this past autumn via his debut novel The Best Laid Plans. The entire time I was reading this wonderfully farcical book I could not help fantasizing which of Stephen Harper’s cabinet ministers would make for the funniest headlines if caught in a similar scandal to that presented in this book.
The Best Laid Plans also happens to represent yet another one of these terrific rags to riches self-publishing tales that I love so much. Like The Martian by Andy Weir, Fallis’ first novel received little interest from the stodgy publishing industry so he boldly set about doing it himself. Rather than self-publish immediately, Fallis chose a novel (cough, cough, did you see what I did there) route and began releasing self-narrated podcasts of chapters online. As popularity for this audio version of his Canadian political satire increased, Terry finally self-published a hardcopy version. The book version would lead to yet another leap in popularity culminating with The Best Laid Plans becoming the surprise winner of the Stephen Leacock medal for humour in 2008. Now in possession of a prestigious award, it was short order before those stodgy, old publishers stepped up and contracted the book for release to the masses. In 2011 Fallis and his book would garner even further praise when The Best Laid Plans won the annual CBC Canada Reads competition. And finally, the cherry on top of this quintessential Canadian Cinderella story; in 2015 the book would be made into a CBC six-part miniseries.
I have said it many times before, but I’m a huge fan of such success stories, Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding. It gives the tens of thousands of self-deluded amateur writers out there a crumb of hope that they too could one day become a successful, published author despite a metre thick stack of rejection letters. They are just such wonderful feel-good stories. And the fact that this is a Canadian example makes it all the more pleasant and, frankly, poignant for a newbie like me tackling a possible new calling as a writer.
Shouldn’t Funny Awards Go To Funny Books?
I have often been perplexed by Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour winners. It’s a humour award but in several instances where I’ve read winners or short list finalists I too often find myself scratching my head as to how this or that particular book was deemed humorous. Humour is obviously a very subjective art form, possibly even more so than music. There aren’t too many Venn diagrams that successfully incorporate everything from The Three Stooges to The Far Side. Still, I expected winners of the Leacock medal to make me laugh; out loud. Take, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt as an example. It is a terrific book that I genuinely enjoyed reading. I recommend it to everyone. It was dark, quirky and certainly unique but I never thought while reading, “Hey, this is really funny. Someone should give it an award for that.” Perhaps I’m too obtuse or conventional when it comes to humour awards? Regardless, The Best Laid Plans was the first winner I read that had me openly giggling while doing so.
Make no mistake, Terry Fallis was a former Liberal Party advisor for many years and his political bias is worn on his sleeve throughout this book. I’m positive many a partisan Conservative supporter would not find this book the slightest bit humorous, let alone award-worthy. I, thankfully, am not such a person so I found The Best Laid Plans exceptionally funny, especially in the context of ten years of Stephen Harper’s increasingly exasperating governance. That being said, I did think Fallis was a little too willing to make the easy anti-conservative joke. Some of the jokes came across as caricature more than satire and I felt that diminished the book a bit. Not that right wing parties aren’t often well-deserving of mockery, but it might have been more challenging, or at least deft, to turn the parties around and have the heroes be Conservatives.
Reading this book during the election also proved timely in another respect; the “Sunny Ways” mantra of the eventual winning Trudeau led Liberals. Despite the goofiness of the plot, at the core of The Best Laid Plans, Fallis presents an intriguing hypothesis. Can a politician actually be a moral and honest public servant, rejecting partisanship and gamesmanship, and focusing on the big picture of national benefit sometimes over local interests? While Angus McLintock may not outwardly present a “Sunny Ways” personality, his every action in the book is very much akin to what Justin Trudeau is currently basing his entire Prime Ministership upon. Trudeau may not have the gruff charm of the stereotypical Scotsman in Fallis’ book, but his philosophy, as verbalized thus far, certainly parallels that of the fictional Member of Parliament. Only time will tell if the Liberal’s “Sunny Ways” is real or simply an odd, brief, and ultimately cynical coincidence. History, sadly, greatly favours the latter.
As for the book itself, it’s an enjoyable, easy read that will give you plenty of laughs. A lot of the plot points are predictable but, I suppose, in many ways this predictability makes it so fun to read. The story goes exactly where you want it to and sometimes that is exactly what you want in a book. It’s a “wouldn’t it be funny if” bar conversation brought to fruition and shocking plot twists don’t always work in such a scenario.
A Very Canadian Book
The book is also extremely Canadian which likely limits its appeal to non-Canucks. Non-navel gazers from outside The Great White North will still enjoy and relate to it, but the politics upon which the entire story is built is wholly Canadian. Fallis does an admirable job explaining the nuances of our political system that influence the story progression which is welcome and valuable since even Canadians can be a little stupid when it comes to our political traditions. Americans, presumably, will find a lot of the political machinations in this book peculiar while the Brits, Aussies, and other Commonwealth nations should be somewhat familiar with them.
The hero of the book is Angus McLintock, a gruff university engineering professor who agrees to run for the Liberal Party in a staunchly Conservative riding in Eastern Ontario represented by the powerful current Minister of Finance. He does so in order to escape his duty of teaching English for Engineers for the upcoming school term. His cohort in this ruse is Daniel Addison a former political staffer recently turned English professor whose last promise to his Liberal Party masters was to find a shmuck to run in this unwinnable riding. A shocking scandal turns the election upside down and McLintock reluctantly wins the impossible election.
From that simple and predictable premise, a pleasing and funny story is spun that most Canadians will and did enjoy. I quite liked it and as I said at the start, the whole experience was amplified by reading this during an election that saw the Conservative party as a whole surprisingly defeated by the Liberals. It is certainly not destined to become a giant of comic literature. This is not Mark Twain or Douglas Adams. Still, it’s a worthy read and a wonderful success story to boot.
I happily give The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. The Liberal bias is a bit thick sometimes (okay, most of the time) and that will turn some readers off, as will the predictability. But if you approach this book with proper expectations you’ll be rewarded with a light, distinctively Canadian, fun-filled romp through Canadian politics.