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Onyx reviews: Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

For nearly twenty years, Canadian humorist Stuart McLean has been publishing collections of anecdotes, many of them featuring a family of four. Dave used to manage road tours for famous rock bands. He now runs a record store called The Vinyl Cafe near Toronto, Ontario. He has a predilection for getting into socially awkward and frequently hilarious situations. His long-suffering wife, Morley, isn't immune to having misadventures of her own. The couple has two children, Stephanie and Sam.

Dave grew up in Big Narrows, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in a quieter, gentler age. McLean has been taking Dave and his family back to his home town more and more frequently of late. The nostalgia of a man in his late forties is reflected through the eyes of an author who is nearly sixty-five. Some of the stories are from the point of view of Morley or Sam, and even Arthur, the dog, is the focus of some tales. Stephanie is less of a presence now that she's away at university, though she reappears from time to time.

Few of Dave's misadventures are life-threatening, but they can be harrowing. In one situation, he drops a set of keys through a sewer grating. They aren't his own keys—they belong to a family whose pet he is looking after while they are out of town—so retrieving them is of the utmost urgency. He manages to pry up the manhole cover and actually finds the keys without much trouble. However, a city worker replaces the cover and someone else parks a car over the grating before Dave can get back out. Thus begins his long odyssey through an increasingly complex maze of sewers, which culminates in an encounter with a young boy who refuses to go for help because, in doing so, he would have to confess to talking to a stranger. Besides, the little boy suspects Dave may actually be a monster.

In "Code Yellow," Dave visits a friend in the hospital. The man suffered a stroke and has been experiencing bouts of depression. Dave and hospitals aren't a good mix. Dave isn't quite a hypochondriac, but he has hypchondriacal tendencies. Morley, who knows Dave better than anyone, warns him she doesn't want any unexpected calls from the hospital. Over the course of an eventful visit, Dave is discovered by a nurse lying in bed with his friend, steals a hospital gown, loses his own clothes, takes his friend on an unauthorized excursion off the hospital grounds (both men wearing johnny gowns, Dave's friend in a wheel chair), becomes the subject of a "missing patient" alert and finds himself bound for the proctology clinic as a suspected patient in for a procedure. Morley was right to be worried, but Dave's shenanigans prove just the tonic the depressed man needed.

On another occasion, Dave is talked into helping a friend win a fishing competition and has a close encounter with a wild animal after smearing himself with essence of crayfish. His ill-advised decision to replace a broken shoelace with one taken from a pair of ice skates causes Dave to have a harrowing encounter with a piece of exercise equipment.

Sometimes Dave tells his kids about misadventures from his youth, like the time he and his friends discovered a dog stranded on an ice floe that is about to break loose from the pack and send the animal careening down a raging river. Other stories tell about Dave and Morley's often strained relationship with their neighbors. Like the time Morley takes advantage of her access to the house of a new family in the neighborhood to escape from her tumultuous life for a few minutes of quiet. Minutes that turn into hours that lead to a gently embarrassing conclusion. Or the time Dave inadvertently brings an invasive species back home from Mexico that comes close to overrunning the neighborhood.

At heart, Dave is a kind and gentle man. His life view is relaxed, even if he tends to cause stress in those around him. He has many friends (including Kenny Wong, who runs Wong's Scottish Meat Pies, up the street from The Vinyl Cafe) and a few adversaries, including neighbor Mary Turlington, who is often the victim of some of his capers. His rural upbringing is tempered with his exotic years managing tours. While his family (which has no last name) has the odd tiff, they are devoted and loving. The parents dote on their children, and Dave often takes them back to visit his mother in Cape Breton, which allows McLean to explore the quieter side of life.

Some of the stories are droll and amusing. A few are laugh out loud. They aren't morality tales, for the most part, though there are fundamental truths and observations about life in many of them. These stories generally began their lives on McLean's radio program on CBC radio in Canada. As such, they are perfectly designed to be read aloud, if the reader can manage to keep from bursting out laughing at Dave's well-intended but often disastrous antics.

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