Austin Clarke’s 1986 collection, Nine Men Who Laughed, includes the stories “A Man” and “How He Do It,” both of which offer accounts of Joshua Miller-Corbaine from two unique perspectives. Miller-Corbaine is a man who dresses and acts the part of a high-powered corporate lawyer but is, in fact, unemployed and entirely dependent on his wife and mistresses for financial support. “A Man” describes Miller-Corbaine’s masculine performances in standard English. “How He Does It,” written in nation language from the perspective of one of Miller-Corbaine’s friends, retells his narrative to further indicate the cracks in his chimerical identity. Both stories offer different takes on performances of masculinity; reading the two in dialogue with one another reveals what can be achieved in these distinct narrative styles.
This new, previously-unpublished story takes up Miller-Corbaine’s story from a third perspective: that of an embittered white neighbour. In this story Clarke satirizes both Miller-Corbaine’s Potemkin masculinity as well as the language and politics of the white society that can only view black men as con artists, liars, and sexual predators. This new story offers another view on two of Clarke’s classic works and some of the major themes in his oeuvre.
The man I want to discuss is a legend. In my neighbourhood at least, and for a short time—the summer of 1987—I expect he was much discussed throughout the city, because his infamy is the subject of a pair of articles, titled “A Man” and “How He Does It,” published in consecutive issues of Saturday Night Magazine, written by a friend of this fraud, a fellow countryman, a certain Trinidadian by the name of Mr. Austin C. Clarke. Now why, you may ask, would I, an esteemed municipal court judge, squander my time rewriting what was already beaten to death years ago at cocktail parties and around the pool that summer. Well, it’s because these two articles about my former neighbour—a certain Mr. Josh M.G. Miller-Corbaine—are satisfyingly revealing, but contradictory, prematurely terminated, and I’d like to expose and correct several important fallacies, which I’m aware of due to my direct involvement in the affair. Moreover, although my name is not actually stated in either article, I am clearly identified as the judge next door, and certain qualified attributed to my person—my supposed unfriendliness for example, the description of my neighbourhood—demand redress. I wrote letters to Saturday Night—these were refused; I tried to let the matter drop; but alas, my belief in the supremacy of truth has prompted this account.
First, I’ll summarize the articles, indicating the contradictions and making appropriate connections, then I’ll explain my role in what happened. The first article is written in plain English. It details the wildly deceitful life that Mr. Miller-Corbaine was leading when he was among us, with four women—all of them white, which is of no importance but for the fact it validates my suspicion that this man is fraudulent and a misogynist. There was his wife, Mary—a lovely, voluptuous woman whom he might as well have beaten so complete was his emotional neglect of her, a fact I was plainly aware of from the moment they arrived in our neighbourhood and he strutted out of that golden hub-capped, silver Cadillac, which he would replace annually with the newest model, to gloat upon their new house from the front lawn his lewd and bulbous eyes, barking indecipherable commands at Mary over his shoulder. Here I’d like to interpose that I was unaware he found me cold, even racist. It’s a flagrant lie that we didn’t even speak when a freak snow storm forced us to shovel our own driveways side by side, and I can only suppose these untruths arise from his unreasonable cultural-historical resentment of us all. My wife, Darleen, and I, we consistently invited them to cocktail parties; and their son, Winchester—or Whinny, as my boy called him—was welcome at our house any time, we told him that.
We were astonished by this man’s vulgarity. He was the type who would lean into the horn rather than step out of his car to ring a doorbell. He carried on his person his weight in hold, in his teeth, around his fingers and wrists, and no matter what the occasion he wore a three-piece suit and a starched white shirt so criss-crossed with gold watch-chains he called to mind one of those heavily ornamented Clydesdales at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (which, incidentally we invited them to once, only to have that man spook a team by tossing his program out of the box just as they were clopping past). And wherever he went he would carry a thick, black-leather briefcase with his initials, every last one of them (J.M.G.M.—C.) burnt in gold. He informed me when we first chatted that he was a corporate lawyer, but when I told him I was a judge, I observed that even his dark complexion showed red and he began to sweat. I understood then and there—at that very first cocktail party they attended—that I’d trapped him in a lie. And my resolve to expose him would harden with time.
The first of the two articles purports to expose many basic facts—some of which I know, prima facie, to be false. I’ll list them quickly. He lived in a well-to-do neighbourhood. True. Our neighbourhood is very close to Forest Hill Village—it meanders along the west brow of the Cedarvale ravine. But I contest the insularity that Mr. Clarke implies, suggesting we’re an island of prigs and racists. Our neighbourhood, our street, ends at Bathurst. If you cross Bathurst, take Claxton two blocks to Kenwood, turn left there, one block over you’ll find Vaughn Rd., famous for its Jamaican character. Moreover, I’d like to admit, “as evidence for the defence,” that I happily take lunch, to stay, at Albert’s Jamaican Food Restaurant with my son, and have done so for years; so that Albert says “hello” when he sees me and one of the five surly women who serve there sometimes smile.
Since we’re on the subject of our neighbourhood, I’d also like the reader to know that, unlike the one portrayed in the first article, which is hostile with nosy neighbours peeking from behind curtains and front yards empty and unfriendly except for automatic sprinklers, the neighbourhood we live in is actually among the safest and most friendly in the city. I can walk to the store on Bathurst for a litre of milk on a warm Saturday morning, when cicadas are already singing in the tops of powerful maple trees, and not only do all my neighbours smile and children bike safely to and from the ravine with joyous peels of laughter, Mrs. Chong and I share a warm rapport and underprivileged children frequently (and lucratively) hold car washes at the corner gas station. Mr. Miller-Corbaine was such a problem not because he was black, not even because he was so unapologetically crude; no, we found him such a problem because he was an aggressive, reckless driver, and we wondered if he intentionally swerved to strike our children off their bikes with his Cadillac.
Men of a common profession know each other instinctively, and they can smell a phoney from a long way away, especially when the profession is the law, when you work for truth and justice. Both articles—the second is written in pidgin and has even more inaccuracies than the first—reveal unequivocally that this man is no lawyer, which I already knew and had brought to the attention of Mary. She blushed and begged me to keep quiet. The first article indicates that he spent his days leering at women from his car and from a coffee shop on Bloor St., when he wasn’t carrying on with a nubile doting schoolteacher, or a pathetic retiree whom he’d stopped sleeping with when she had reached 49, or a rich Jewess who lived on other side of Forest Hill—of course, unbeknownst to each other and to his wife.
He lived off his wife. Her father was a company man, she was a school teacher, a fine, liberal-minded woman with a handsome build who taught Social Studies and Ethnic Culture. His son, who obviously resented that awful man and spent all the time he could with our boy, Tim, attended Upper Canada College. He was nothing like his father, and my boy still talks to him occasionally.
The fact is he treated his wife like a maid and I resented it. I resented that Jewish princess he brought over when his wife was away, flaunting and snapping shots of her on the lawn in front of the house. The first article indicates I was raking my “immaculate” lawn when that happened—it was covered in leaves, the photos would confirm that this happened in fall, not summer—and that I retreated into my house disapprovingly. I did, I certainly did, and from the living room window I determined I would find out the truth, no matter what.
In the second article, Mr. Clarke involves himself, using his native tongue. The pidgin’s vague, the grammar and spelling, willfully incorrect; nevertheless, it becomes clear that he’s reneging on what’s said in the earlier article about the young teacher whom Mr. Miller-Corbaine violated once a month, “after that time,” and Mr. Clarke substitutes himself instead, playing up the po-boy from the islands who dumbly types information into legal documents for his spurious friend, hoping on a wing and a prayer that he actually is a ‘bona fide’ lawyer, like he says he is. In that article, Mary goes to the Jewess to confront her (instead of discovering in her own living room, as in the first article), and we think Mr. Miller-Corbaine is sunk, but the little weasel—he looks like one, the way he slinks about with sloped shoulders—pulls the wool over the Jew’s eyes, convincing her with the help of ingenuous Whinny that Mary’s merely an unstable domestic; meanwhile convincing Mary that he’ll henceforth be faithful to her.
This all happened. I know because I’d been following the case ever since the afternoon I saw him take that tramp’s photograph on the front lawn, and I crept over and watched them through the living room window, him almost passed out in his three piece suit and her naked like two-bit whore, staring at a picture of gentle Mary on the wall. I saw it and I heard Mary and the boy get home and watched her drop both valises when she opened the door; and she crumbled into tears, grabbed Whinny’s hand and fled to our house. Then and there I vowed to ruin that man. I knew Mary would forgive him, and my blood boiled.
The question is, how do you sink a man who’s just the shell of a man. You push him down in a spot that would drown a normal man, and he pops right up, laughs and floats away. That’s what happened after Mary discovered him with the naked Jew—although the article ends without saying so—and that’s what happened when I gave her the address and she confronted that woman in her apartment.
“Your dinner’s getting cold, judge” [a little joke between the wife and I], Darleen called from the kitchen. I hushed her and wouldn’t come away from the window. I stayed until after midnight, going over it again and again, three versions of the same story, raging by degrees. So far as I could piece together, he’d won, he’d got off scot-free and would continue pursuing his malignant ways with impunity. Darleen asked me to turn off the light and I said, ‘No, I’m not finished.’ I need to defeat that man who lives next door to me, who threatens our children with his menacing Cadillac. And the truth should be enough, the neighbours’ sound judgment, or those tramps. I could follow him to their homes and expose him. But he’s already been exposed! Nothing has happened, he doesn’t care, they don’t want to know badly enough.
Where’s justice? What about men, rock-solid men, who work hard for a living, are faithful, who don’t dare strike a woman or disabuse a child? His colour’s not the issue—why must they always make colour the issue? What difference does it make? He owes no apologies for his violent compatriots and their drugs and guns if he comes to live in my neighbourhood respectfully. But I don’t like my fundamental principles flaunted, and I don’t like leeches. How can I sink him? I screamed. Why are his jaundiced eyes yellow? What does he expect from me?
The only way to drown a hollow man is to scuttle him or mark him permanently for what he denies. I planned a cocktail party to that end.
I sometimes wonder if the second article is a take-off, a hoax. It’s got some important details that are missing from the first, but the tone’s so different, it’s not at all the same, and in it he’s a teetotaler, which is patently false. Mr. Miller-Corbaine’s a heavy drinker, I can attest to that. I was depending on it for my design to win the day.
I invited Mr. Miller-Corbaine and Mary one hour early, and I told the wait-staff to make his drinks strong. He was sweating brilliantly by the time the others arrived, though he still refused to surrender to me even one piece of his suit, and he greeted everyone with nuts in his teeth. Rhonda arrived last.
Rhonda’s a black whore. I had instructed her to dress to allure, but with style, and to be sweet to Mr. Miller-Corbaine, whom I struggled to describe until she said, “You mean he’s black, right?” Right. I also detailed the layout of the bottom floor of our house, and the erstwhile maid’s room off the kitchen. At ten o’clock she strutted in on sharp yellow shoes. I introduced her to the guests as a newly minted lawyer whom I’d mentored. She was scintillating and gracious, a fine young hooker, and when I finally presented her to Mr. Miller-Corbaine, Mary was sticking close; but such was Rhonda’s charm, Mary would soon be blushing and working to compensate for her initial frigidity with ingratiating smiles. I left everyone to mingle.
Some hours later—two perhaps—I decided I’d better distract Mary. I said to her, ‘Join me on the porch and I’ll smoke a cigar. I’ll chuckle with panache and indicate broken boards in the fence between our yards.’ Mary nodded and tried to excuse herself, so I said something complimentary about Whinny. Meanwhile, Mr. Miller-Corbaine was laughing, baring his gilt teeth, and Rhonda was touching his shoulder, then his leg. Outside, I repeated myself, ‘Our fence is rotten, let’s have a new one built, more elegant. And what a fine boy Whinny is.’ I watched Rhonda take Mr. Miller-Corbaine by the arm to the maid’s room. I shivered and remarked upon the cold.
Mary was distressed when she didn’t see her husband as soon as we re-entered the house. I suggested to her that her husband must have gone home to bed. She hurried away to see. In the meantime, a climax was mounting, a proper resolution, so I collected a few of the neighbours’ men and one wife and let it be known I had a very special bottle of overproof rum waiting in the adjacent room that they might like to sample. They liked. Follow me. They followed. I opened the door—after you—and ta-daaa, I turned on the light.
It was even better than I had imagined. Mr. Miller-Corbaine was on his knees, pressed in behind her. Her dress was up almost over her head (she looked like a black-eyed Susan). Luckily for her, her buttocks were partly covered by his crumpled shirt-tails. Both of them simply stared at us and blinked. “Mr. Miller-Corbaine!” my wife, who was with us, belatedly cried. He squirmed a very uncomfortable smile, tugging at Rhonda’s dress. Rhonda’s eyes narrowed, her lip hooked a sneer—my neighbours and I shuffled backwards.
I thought, Mary must be back, and went out to intercept her. She needs to see this, she has to know! “I can’t find him,” Mary said. “Mary, I don’t know what to say.”
I hinted at what was in the room, tried to hold her, but she had to see for herself, which was best. She saw, she exclaimed, she fled.
Now that’s that. I’m entirely satisfied: Mr. Miller-Corbaine has been fully exposed to anyone who matters, and my memory preserves this tableau. I shall usher the others out of the room, and I’ll toss Mr. Miller-Corbaine a blanket off a shelf in the closet. “Cover yourself up,” I’ll sneer, switching the light off before I close the door.
Austin Clarke (1934-2016) was a Barbadian-born Canadian novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, and broadcaster.