Late in the summer of 2017, Wally Hourback, a Canadian writer from North Bay, Ontario, and a man with whom I had a fifteen-year relationship that was entirely epistolary and editorial, died of heart failure.
My relationship with Wally came about because of dooneyscafe.com, for which Hourback wrote occasional pieces, and which you know, if you’re reading this, I co-curate along with Stan Persky. But in the real world I never once set eyes upon Wally.
Accordingly, and with some shame, I confess to knowing pathetically little about Hourback’s private life. He’s been silent for several years, something that had eluded my attention because I was going through a difficult period in my own life and not paying sufficient attention to the dooneycafe.com website—or much of anything else except my navel, which I mistook for a broken heart.
I didn’t attend Hourback’s funeral because there wasn’t one. That said, I wouldn’t have made it to a funeral had there been one, because I didn’t find out that he died for nearly six weeks after his death.
This hasn’t entirely been caused by my dereliction. Wally Hourback was profoundly and perhaps eccentrically private, as witnessed by the fact that I never met him in the flesh even though, as I’ve recently discovered, he spent considerable time in Toronto, often within a block or two of where I was living. He was elusive in other ways, too. The persona he effected as a writer is turning out to be slightly—and I suspect, deliberately—misleading. He was better educated than he let on, and more refined in his tastes, at least when it came to coffee. I’m told he went out of his way to prevent anyone from photographing him; the author photograph he provided for Dooneyscafe.com under his byline shows a man much younger than Hourback, and even then, disguised as Zip the Pinhead.
In several of the pieces he wrote for dooneyscafe.com he presented himself as a normal sort of guy hanging out in a North Bay Tim Hortons outlet playing out a Canadian version of what Larry McMurtry suggested was the contemporary ground zero of storytelling in his Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. I’m beginning to understand, however, that he had no preference for Tim Hortons coffee or for the company of its patrons, and that, probably after reading McMurtry, he was engaging in satire. When I drove up to North Bay this spring to uncover what I could of his background and personality, I could find no one at any of the numerous Tim Hortons outlets there who knew him, although it didn’t help that I couldn’t show an accurate photo of him to jog their memories.
The single Tim Hortons employee who recalled him did so quite oddly. “Oh yeah,” he told me. “I remember Hourback. One time as he was leaving, I said ‘Have a nice day, Mr. Hourback,’ and he told me to fuck off and then gave me a five-minute lecture on why I shouldn’t tell strangers what to do with their time. That phrase hasn’t crossed my lips since, I’ll tell you.”
This sounds about right, from what I’ve been able to discover. In person, it’s clear, Hourback was not only reclusive, but sternly so. He saved his lighter side, I guess, for his writing.
As a writer, Hourback was culturally alert, literate and sometimes extremely funny, a dedicated bubble-burster and ego deflator with a first-class bullshit detector. I got the sense that he was a man who liked to argue, but not for its own sake. He was interested in substance, and always worked within the strict rules of the evidential universe. His prose is crisp; firmly in the vernacular of the Canadian hinterland, and yet unapologetically philosophical and literate, as if the perpetual writers’ struggle for the right word was only, for him, a sidebar to his quest for an ideational complexity that matched the way he saw the world around him.
I’m beginning to understand, from the few first-hand accounts I’ve uncovered, and some documents recently sent to me, that Hourback’s last years were less than happy and peaceful. A longstanding marriage collapsed, and he struggled to come to terms with it. And since that at least roughly parallels my own life, I’m doubly regretful that I never got to talk to him in person.
Of the two of us, I appear to be the luckier. I spent my years of marriage in Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, and I gained a daughter from it—a marvelous girl who has sufficiently occupied my attention (before and after the marriage collapsed) that I’ve suffered no great damage or emotional distress. I’m also still alive, which, most of the time, seems like superior luck.
You can find the articles he wrote for dooneyscafe.com in the archive.
August 5, 2018, 800 words.