Several years ago a young man asked me what it takes to write a memoir. “Wait for something bad to happen,” I told him. Then, by way of encouragement, I added, “Don’t worry. It will.” This was more curse, I see now, than helpful writerly advice. In my defence, I had so-called misery memoirs on the brain, probably because I had just finished one of my own. Let’s face it, nowadays, “something bad”—my son’s autism, in my case—is the foundation most memoirs are built on.
Maybe that is why Antanas Sileika’s decision to flip the script in The Barefoot Bingo Caller feels, at once, risky and refreshing. Spoiler alert: nothing really bad happens here, a fact Sileika compensates for with a breezy, anecdotal style. His new memoir starts out lighthearted and largely remains that way. While Sileika is self-deprecating, he does not demonstrate much of a dark side in the book. As a kid, he was, by his own assessment, a little too good for his own good—a Boy Scout, both literally and figuratively. This tends to get him into trouble with his older brothers, jock types, who persecute him for his ineptitude at sports, among other things. Still, Sileika is forgiving. If anything, he seems nostalgic for the suffering inflicted upon his younger self. “Older brothers were mixed blessings,” he acknowledges in the opening pages. “They were frenemies, avant le mot: champions, teachers, exploiters, torturers, benefactors, and the only ones who really understood you.”
Except that his brothers, like his Lithuanian immigrant parents, do not really understand him. His mother, uncomfortable with her son’s bookishness, chases him outside to play whenever she gets the chance. Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Weston, Sileika suffers the typical fate of a child of immigrants—he feels safe and bored in equal measures. If, as Tolstoy said, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, Sileika’s family is moderately unhappy in its own, distinctly moderate way. Disappointment stands in for dysfunction.
The young Sileika wants nothing so much as to get out: “I was hungry for literature and art, cars and noise and movie houses showing European flicks.” But he is also smart enough to know that true escape is impossible. “Even the children of immigrants stayed immigrants,” he adds later. “It was like we’d been inoculated against mainstream culture.”
Of course, if you can’t beat mainstream culture and you can’t join it, there is always folk dancing. The chapter “The Beer Barrel Polka” has Sileika turning an admittedly half-hearted attachment to ethnic costumes, accordion music and the polka into his own Portrait of the Artist moment as he flirts with the whole self-exile pose. Sileika’s rebellion against his roots consists of him stranding his Lithuanian-Canadian dance partner on stage moments before the two are about to perform. His reason: a disapproving look from a young woman in the audience Sileika deems more alluring and more exotic. This decision ends up being both cruel and romantically short-sighted. He learns later his jilted dance partner was not only fonder of him but more available than he thought. For a future writer, there is a lesson here about the value of sticking with what you know best and telling the story you were meant to tell.
Sileika’s father is also all for his wayward offspring staying in touch with his roots. So much so that he refuses to pay his son’s tuition when Sileika wants to go to university far from home. In the chapter “Summer Lessons,” the author’s father’s frustration with his son could not be plainer. He tells Sileika: “Learn some values from the people you work with instead of daydreaming all the time.”
As it will turn out, a propensity for daydreaming is not a bad quality to have if you are an aspiring storyteller, although it does not serve Sileika especially well on his way to a writing career. If this book had an alternate title, it might be something like “An Unfortunate Series of Jobs I Was Woefully Unsuited For.” A short list of the part-time employment Sileika daydreams his way through include factory worker, bread truck delivery man, parking lot attendant, corporate headhunter and, of course, bingo caller. Along the way, he finds uniquely amusing ways to mess up in each one.
Coincidentally, it is while he is out on the town, barefoot—his Hush Puppies loafers are deemed insufficiently bohemian by the bohemians he is desperate to impress so he removes them—and playing hooky from the bingo hall that he has what ranks as his worst moment in the early part of the book. He mistakes a CBC executive radio producer for a prostitute. Fortunately, he does not act on this assumption. Unfortunately, we never learn the rest of the story—it feels like an inside joke—so readers can only guess at the embarrassment this misguided notion caused him when he first showed up to do some freelance broadcasting at CBC radio.
In any case, Sileika’s ups and downs in the job market smooth out eventually. He ends up building a distinguished CanLit career for himself as a freelance journalist, teacher—he is the former director of the Humber School for Writers—literary critic and part-time broadcaster. He is also the author of three novels as well as Buying on Time, a 1997 collection of linked short stories about an immigrant family navigating, often imprecisely, its way around middle-class life in the Toronto suburb of Weston.
Sound familiar? The Barefoot Bingo Caller is, two decades later, a non-fiction mirror image of Buying on Time. In the afterword, Sileika acknowledges that writing a memoir is not an exact science and, indeed, there are moments when I worried this experiment was about to falter. The links between what amounts to 17 disparate personal essays are not always sturdy enough to sustain an already patchwork narrative. Characters established at the start, such as Sileika’s brothers, tend to disappear without a trace. I also ended up hoping, in vain, to hear more about his wife and children as well as his literary friends and foes. So, yes, there are times that The Barefoot Bingo Caller’s breezy, anecdotal tone skims a little too lightly across the surface of things.
More than halfway through the book, though, Sileika stumbles accidentally—the accident of birth—into a subject he cannot help finding funny and yet also taking seriously. As a Lithuanian Canadian, he ends up occupying a front-row seat to history, namely the end of the Cold War. In the late 1980s, he serves as a translator and a kind of ad hoc consultant to visiting Lithuanian politicians struggling to be free of the imploding Soviet Union. In a way, it is one more unlikely part-time gig for Sileika: “the youth who had tried to escape the beer barrel polka of his ethnic parents became Mr. Lithuania in Canada, a pundit on the radio and TV, a sort of expert about a place no one had paid any attention to for over forty years.”
Only this time, the stakes are high and Sileika turns out to be well suited for the job. “It was nerve-wracking,” he says of his impromptu role in world affairs, “but it was also bliss then to be alive.”
If The Barefoot Binger Caller sometimes struggles to gain its footing as a memoir, it is on solid ground as an autobiography. These days, literary memoirs, in particular, tend to narrow in on a single, significant event or moment in time. The Barefoot Bingo Caller instead provides an overview of its narrator’s entire life and does so to its advantage. We witness Sileika growing older and wiser and more melancholy. In later chapters, like “Dinner with Dementia,” Sileika makes the most of heartbreaking, throwaway observations, like this one about his mother-in-law’s decline: “Dementia wards have party rooms, even if they aren’t used much.”
The chapter “After the Party” is my favourite example of Sileika’s affinity for a kind of matter-of-fact gravitas. This time his recollection of his chaotic early days at Humber, teaching English to new immigrants, turns on another throwaway remark about a gay colleague coming down with a harmless summer cold. But it is not a cold and it is not harmless. It is the early 1980s and the AIDS epidemic is about to make big, terrifying news. “The world was changing in unexpected ways,” Sileika writes with poignant understatement. Ultimately, it is precisely those changes in Sileika’s life and the world around him that are at the insightful and fundamentally light heart of The Barefoot Bingo Caller.