Hidden Gems in Secret Carnival Workers
The late Paul Haines’ Secret Carnival Workers was launched at the end of last month, the occasion marked with a concert by his daughter, Emily (his other daughter is television journalist Avery Haines). Torontoist has been mulling over the book, comprised of poetry, fiction, jazz journalism and album liner notes, since then.
This is not a book to be devoured quickly. It can be dense at times, but also immensely rewarding and full of incredibly clever, and very funny, one-liners, plot twists and turns of phrase. In the short story “Easterly,” one of the characters tells another, “No matter what you came here for, you came to the right place.” It may as well be a description of the book itself, with its diversity of form.
There is one thing, though, that readers won’t find in Secret Carnival Workers, and that’s writing like any other. Haines’ music journalism is detailed and wandering—it’s storytelling. In a piece on the Italy Jazz Festival, he describes the audience in a bandstand “at the bottom of the shell-like Piazza” as “all ears in a cup.”
His album liner notes, rather than being straightforward descriptions of the artist’s history, are slightly surreal affairs, full of flourishes. In his entry for Paul Bley’s Footloose, he writes, “Bley rids the studio of musical impediments by playing everything all over again for the first time. Or is the convention to begin with what will appear extravagant to those who look before they listen, but tickle pink anyone out for fig foot?” You won’t find writing like that in Rolling Stone. (Indeed, Haines himself seems to recognize this—in “Broken Lies” he speaks of “newspapers better heard than read” used to cover a piano being played.)
Haines’ biggest gift is his knack for subtle, intelligent humour. Puns and plays on words can often come across as cheesy, but under the pen of Paul Haines, they’re delightful. The book’s editor, Stuart Broomer, reports that after contributing lyrics to music by jazz composer and musician Carla Bley, Haines referred to himself as a “women’s librettist.” (Similarly, the jolting short story ‘What did I do? Why did you leave me, little Tsilla?” is reminiscent of Betty Friedan’s feminist classic The Feminine Mystique in its depiction of a woman’s struggle with motherhood.) A delightful poem entitled “DEBATE” packs a punch in only two lines: “TO IMPERIL/THE USELESS.” His paragraph-long dissection, early in the book, of Ginsburg and the “celebrity Beats” is dry humour at its best.
Printed on lovely textured paper, a hallmark of Coach House Books’ careful attention to book design, Secret Carnival Workers is packed with suprising moments—as Haines writes, “Art is what refuses to refresh the memory”—and unique humour. It’s best lingered over, allowing time to absorb the hidden gems in Haines’ writing.