Human Amusements by Wayne Johnston
(Anchor Books) $13.95

Americans have two possible reactions to the obvious superiority of Canada: We can laugh at our goofy, harmless neighbor (as if Don Knotts were a country); or we can simply ignore it, as dwelling too long on its better health care, lower crime rates, and preponderance of legal drugs is, for most thinking Americans, simply painful. At least, I can think of no other reason for Wayne Johnston, well-regarded as one of Canada's greatest novelists and virtually ignored in America, to fly as far under the radar as he does.

After publishing seven books and winning a pile of Canadian literary prizes, Johnston is finally beginning to get some attention in America. Anchor Books is reissuing his 1994 novel Human Amusements, a witty, engaging book that is equal parts bildungsroman, family history, and social commentary. During the Golden Age of television, Henry Prendergast is recruited to star in his mother's television show, a J. P. Patches-esque enterprise called Rumpus Room, as a giant, moralistic bee. The success of Rumpus Room leads Henry's mother to create another, yet even more improbable show, about the creator of television, Philo Farnsworth, also starring the young and increasingly isolated Henry. The Philo Farnsworth Show attracts fans of a particularly extreme personality type. "Philosophers," as they call themselves, dress up like the show's characters, hold conventions, stake out the Prendergast home, and generally act like their real-life Harry Potter equivalents. What's spooky is that this book dates from 1994, several years before people were selling J. K. Rowling's yearbook on eBay for a king's ransom, proving two things: that cultish, obsessive tendencies are eternal human characteristics; and that once again a Canadian has beaten us to forecasting a cultural trend.

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