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Great storyteller William Whitehead tells them all

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Words to Live By

A Memoir

By William Whitehead

Cormorant Books, 248 pages, $30

READING Toronto TV writer William Whitehead's memoir feels like being at a dinner party that's been crashed by a great storyteller. It's enjoyable until you realize he's not going to stop before he has told every joke in his repertoire.

Whitehead was the 40-year partner of the late novelist Timothy Findley, or the lesser-known half of one of Canada's most famous gay power couples.

Words to Live By strings together anecdotes and stories that cover the arc of Whitehead's 80-plus years. For those looking for some of the secrets into the private life of Findley, who died in 2002 at age 71, there's not much here.

Findley (known to his friends and fans as Tiff) barely appears in the book's first half, except in a rather interesting aside about his and Whitehead's sex life or, more accurately, lack of one.

While the couple's relationship was happy and genuine, Whitehead writes, they were not sexually compatible and consistently had independent affairs.

But as fits the conversational tone throughout, Whitehead writes, "Let's talk about something else."

A longtime writer of CBC-TV's The Nature of Things, among other documentaries, Whitehead delights in wordplay. He loves the slight misunderstandings that can occur when someone mishears something or when someone tries to communicate in another language and isn't quite up to the task.

This book often feels like it would be better (and funnier) if the stories were read aloud, as in the passage where three immigrant construction workers discuss a foreman's plight who has just discovered that his wife can't bear him any children.

"Yes," declared one, "she is inconceivable." "No," said the next. "She is impregnable." The third piped up, triumphantly, "Idiots! She is unbearable!"

Whitehead begins with his childhood in Regina and follows with his efforts to become a scientific researcher. He doesn't so much fail as a scientist as lose interest.

When the story does finally shift to include Tiff, the couple's relationship is blossoming at the same time as Canadian culture. Both men begin as actors. Whitehead eventually turns to documentary writing and Findley gravitates to play and novel writing. Among his 11 novels were the Governor General's Award-winner The Wars, Famous Last Words and Not Wanted on the Voyage.

The memoir's soul belongs to the couple's years of domestic bliss at Stone Orchard, their legendary Carrington, Ont., retreat. Tiff and Whitehead blend in admirably in conservative rural Ontario, where the locals even competed to have their sons hired to work on their farm.

One of Whitehead's funniest stories is about a mouse living in their dishwasher that Whitehead brings out when some Jehovah's Witnesses visit.

In the last few years of Tiff's life, the couple lived in a cliffside bungalow in Cotignac, France. Here, the narrative really engages. Whitehead writes with more passion and less folksy charm, as friends from all over the world visit.

The misadventures they have in trying to figure out French food and culture are genuinely fun and funny.

Tiff's decline was gradual, and Whitehead's account of their parting is as sweet as it is sad.

In the end, Whitehead is content to gloss across the surface of his life, laughing at himself as much as the world along the way. Many of his stories contain quiet truths, but while they may elicit the occasional chuckle, they produce almost as many groans.

One can't help but wonder, too, how Findley would have regarded this book. His skill as a storyteller is in no danger of being overshadowed by that of his longer living partner's.

Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg arts marketer, publicist and writer. He and his longtime partner married this summer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J9

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