Brilliant autumn sunshine spills through the plate-glass windows of Bar Mercurio, where Howard Engel sits on a stool at the bar, surrounded by dark wood and brass and glinting glassware. The author’s thinning white hair is combed back, and he looks dapper in his dark turtleneck and jacket. We introduce ourselves and I ask whether he’s been waiting long.
“No,” he says, smiling and gesturing toward the attentive waitress. “I’m being well looked after.
Clearly he’s a regular.
Indeed, soon after we are seated at a table, the owner of the establishment, Joe Mercurio, stops by to pump Howard’s hand warmly. They exchange buon giorno’s.
Though raised in St. Catharines, Howard Engel—unlike Benny Cooperman, the small-town P. I. of his popular detective series—has always been drawn to big cities. He has lived in New York City, Paris and London, among other places. For many years now, his home has been a few blocks’ stroll from Bar Mercurio, in Toronto’s Annex, and he feels “lucky to live here.” He seems at ease in this urban Italian eatery that’s frequented, according to its promotional blurb, by university professors, politicians and “the occasional celeb.” City living is convenient, and “you get attached to certain cafés and restaurants,” Howard remarks, going on to lament in some detail the recent death of a popular local watering-hole, an occurrence which will, he says wryly, “render thousands homeless.”
As he sips his cappuccino and savours a raisin scone, he talks about the pleasures of Toronto, its movie theatres, concert halls and restaurants—he particularly likes French, Chinese, Italian and Japanese food. Speaking to him in person, it’s not obvious that in 2001 Howard suffered a devastating stroke that left him with alexia sine agraphia, a rare condition that rendered him suddenly unable to read. He was also left with a memory deficit and some loss of vision in the upper right-hand corner of his visual field.
Occasionally, he frowns as he strives to recall a detail, and sometimes it doesn’t come to mind at all—yet what’s amazing is what he does remember, including, at one point, the names of all four lead actors in the 1950–51 Broadway version of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell.
Conversation flows easily, whether he’s talking about films (“I’ve become an addict of Turner Classic Movies”) or music (he’s recently seen the impressive pianist Shoko Inoue in concert) or the Internet (“I’m a bit timorous about doing anything on computer that might affect my main text. My writing machine is just for writing”) or even Chinese pictographs (he borrows a pen and sketches the character for “beef” on a napkin). He describes a crime writers’ conference that he enjoyed on Wolfe Island near Kingston, but at which he lost his treasured Tilley hat.
“An unsolved crime?” I suggest.
He laughs. “I don’t know. We were separated, and never reunited.”
But the journey from the stroke to this place of relative acceptance and confidence has been a hard one. Only through sheer determination and with the help of therapists, family and friends has he been able to rebuild his life and teach himself to read again.
Which is not to say that things are now easy. When someone phones and books an appointment, for instance, he must write the details immediately in his daybook. After an interview such as this one, he will write a brief summary as well, so that his notes serve as both reminder and record, giving him “a fix on time passing.” He uses mnemonics to remember names; for example, the chef at Bar Mercurio is Jeff, so Howard thinks of him as “Jeff the Chef.”
Hardest of all is dealing with the palpable loss of his ability to read. He’s cancelled all his newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And the smallest tasks, such as reading the titles on spines to find a book on the shelf, or locating a file folder, can be frustrating. He does read books, but slowly—at the time of the interview, somewhat ambitiously, he was midway through a history of Henry V. He isn’t keen on audiobooks, though. When he listens to one, he says, he feels like he should be doing something—anything—else, “like darning socks.”
Miraculously, and fortunately for his fans, though Howard has difficulty reading, he still writes. The Man Who Forgot How to Read, he says, was written as much to sort through the experience personally as to explain it to others. He has also penned two more Benny Cooperman novels: Memory Book, in which Cooperman suffers a blow to the head that results in alexia sine agraphia, and East of Suez. Howard is now at work on another novel. As he told the Globe and Mail, “I’m hard-wired to write. It’s too late for me to learn new tricks.”
Yet Howard doesn’t come from a family of writers, nor did he aspire to be one. He dreamed of becoming an actor, and played parts in several high school and university productions, including an adaptation of Don Juan in Hell. He was also an extra in the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film Niagara. “My mother kept going to see it,” he laughs, “because I think she thought my part might get bigger.”
As a child, he was an avid reader. He has an early memory of being intrigued with a friend’s father, a mysterious figure who didn’t live with his family and who published a wartime novel. Howard was amazed “at the thought that someone actually had to sit down and ‘make’ a book.”
Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he wrote scripts for his own puppet shows (though he says the writing seemed to come out of the puppets rather than out of him) and a ghost story for his high school magazine. He didn’t always consider himself a writer, not even after working through the 1960s and 1970s as a reporter and later producer for CBC Radio. Not until he’d published his first novel did he feel the title “author” fit.
His debut book was the detective novel The Suicide Murders, released in 1980 and introducing the “soft-boiled” Jewish-Canadian P.I. Benny Cooperman. Howard says he was strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett, who wrote The Maltese Falcon.
“I read them within a week of each other, and the combined effect knocked me off my perch and got me started writing a novel.”
Over the next fifteen years, eleven more Benny Cooperman adventures followed, along with several other novels and works of nonfiction. Since the stroke, Howard’s writing process is laborious. After typing a draft on his computer, which he must accomplish with one hand because a congenital birth defect limits the use of his left, he depends on a friend, Grif Cunningham, to read back to him what he’s written.
“Sometimes now I feel that the text is getting skewed in my head, like looking at the world through bubble glass,” he admits. “It’s not as precise as I’d like it to be.”
But Howard listens carefully and jots notes in order to make the necessary corrections. So far, he says modestly, his newest book is just “sixty pages of characters in search of a plot.” But he knows it will come together.
The author is not stingy about expressing appreciation for people in his life, his friends, his mentor Harry J. Boyle at CBC—“He saved my life. I might be in ladies’ ready-to-wear if it weren’t for him”—his rehab nurse, Kathy Nelson, and his neurologist, Oliver Sacks, who took an interest in Howard’s recovery and drops in for a visit whenever he’s in Toronto.
Asked what he’s most proud of, Howard cites winning the Matt Cohen Award, being chosen as the Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Culture for University College at the University of Toronto, and being named to the Order of Canada. Then he looks thoughtful and adds, “I’m proud of so many things.”
These days Howard, who was widowed after his second wife, Janet Hamilton, died of a brain tumour, lives alone—well, not quite alone: he has his cat for company. Neighbours check in on him regularly, and friends and family drop by. (His daughter lives in Toronto; his sons near Ottawa and at university in Halifax.)
But he doesn’t just wait for the world to come to him. Since he doesn’t read much, he’s “dependent on meeting people and talking over the affairs of the day.” He belongs to a dining society that meets once a month and a group of regulars that gathers weekly at a bar and grill called, appropriately, Quotes. He still attends author festivals, most recently the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ontario. And he and his language pathologist, Michelle Cohen, occasionally visit hospitals to present what he calls their “dog-and-pony show” on stroke recovery.
Howard also has plans to travel. He’s renewing his passport and hopes to visit New York City soon. “I haven’t seen a Broadway play in years,” he says wistfully.
Bar Mercurio has been filling up slowly with a well-heeled and noisy lunchtime crowd. We finish the interview and get up to leave, and as he walks away from the table, Howard remembers that he left his briefcase on the chair beside him—along with his new Tilley hat. He doesn’t want to lose another one, he says, laughing.
Making his way to the front door, he greets, and is greeted by, a number of other patrons; he smiles and nods to one, then another, raises his hand to a couple more, is hailed by name by a fellow at the bar. Two of the serving staff call out to him.
After goodbyes, as I watch him stride away down sun-bathed Bloor Street, it strikes me that while Howard Engel may have forgotten how to read, he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to live.
For more about Howard Engel, visit the HarperCollins Canada website here.
By Allyson Latta. Copyright 2008 HarperCollins Canada. Reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.