The Shah of Shea Heights is the tall tale of a criminal family as told by Billy Tucker, a colourful character with an equally colourful past. His “mother of all tales” had been relayed by his own father one night beside the fireplace, accompanied by increasing amounts of Lambs & Coke. The delightful results invoke the intimacy of the classic fireside tale and the enduring narratives of Mark Twain.
The Shah of Shea Heights
Jonathan Butler is a writer of “historiographic metafiction.” His first novel, Return of the Native, was reviewed in the Globe & Mail and was praised by Wayne Johnston as a “sharp, smart, funny, whimsical first novel,” while Nick Mount described Butler’s prose as “honest, rough, emotional, and more than a little drunk.” The Shah, Butler warns, “jacks it up a notch.”
No, Father knew at a young age, he tells me and Joey, that he wasn’t never going to get mentioned in no history book, and if his life ever mattered at all, the ways in which it did would likely not get recorded in anything outside a government document—a marriage license, a parole certificate, a criminal record. The real story of Father’s life was going to go by the wayside, and Father was not so naïve as to imagine he was alone in this sorry distribution of things. He knew all too well he was among a great store of company—the overlooked, the disregarded. “No use getting upset over the way things are,” Father would say to me when I was a young fellow and not getting what I wanted—first string on the junior A hockey team, or a girl I had been pining over for years who continued to ignore me. But Father never could give up a desire, nonetheless, to feel a part of something, and to live to see it made into a good story, which is why I say that me and Joey were never sure whether Father was telling the truth about those Germans and the goods they recovered that day out on those bird islands. But if Father derived from it the measure of self-importance he’d always sought, well, who was I to take that from him? Father always had the greatest respect for a good story, and whether or not there was a basis in fact for what was being said, there was a kind of substance to the story itself which made it a fact on its own, regardless of the details within it which might or might not have been true. You could see this reverence in Father’s eyes whenever he was listening, as if the rhythm and sound of the syllables were all that was required to make the utterance itself, which was the story, a kind of religious artifact, something to be worshipped. While Father never made a point of instructing me in this manner of behavior, I suppose I learned it by imitation, as a young fellow learns to sit with his legs wide apart—a gesture of manhood—while a girl understands she has to cross her legs. Joey and me both knew it and instinctively gave Father the respect he needed or deserved that night when he told this mother of a tale of the Germans and their lost shipment of blow that he not only located for them after them trying for two years, but now claimed he could reconstitute for them as well after the sea had done her damage to the gear.So me and Joey gave Father the benefit of the doubt—we never questioned anything he told us whenever he was in “story mode” because we knew that the questioning of any particular fact or figure was strictly off limits; it would have been a violation of the implicit trust that Father placed in us by virtue of beginning the story in the first place. We just listened. There must have been a kernel of truth in it all, anyway, since the years Father was talking about in this story were the years our family made the switch from hash to coke—Grandfather would have been appalled to know about it, and Father kept it from him a good few years till the old man passed away without any knowledge, Father made sure, of how the family business—and fortunes—had changed. I wonder now what he might have done—Grandfather—to keep Father from the path he’d wandered down, from the series of chance events which conspired together in some known or unknown pattern—whether as Father told it all that night by the fireplace to me and Joey or else as some other configuration altogether beyond Father’s telling, outside the range of what he chose to see. Doesn’t matter much now. Or does it? Does my telling of the story redeem Father in some fashion? Make his life more valued, more worthy for simply having been told, replayed in the imaginations of those who listen to it.It was clear, in any case, that Father had this sense of his life having reached some kind of a summit here, a point at which he could look out at the world and see himself located, not so much in a geographical manner as in a social one, having helped those Germans reclaim two years of lost life, infuse some meaning into those twenty-two searches founded on a fallible logic which not only perplexed Father for a long while—why not check, just once, as a scientist might have done, as Werner von Braum must have done when building the A bomb, as those BMW engineers must have done when perfecting the motorcar, a possibility which loomed so obviously on the horizon like a tentative world just waiting to be discovered?—but caused him to lose faith in the Germans forever, an ineluctable doubt creeping into his mind from that point on, whenever dealing with Germans, that whatever one was saying was leaky, like that suitcase full of gear, and that you only needed to poke a finger through, pull on a thread, and the whole enterprise of intention would unravel, disintegrate, disappear into a sea of flotsam and jetsam, dispensable meaning. Father never trusted a German after that—or not fully, anyway. If only he’d steered clear of them altogether, he’d be a free man today, giving me a shot in the side on Sunday morning, asking me if I felt up for a trip out to Holyrood to his favorite fishing hole, wagering me a case of Dominion that he’d out-fish me two-to-one and then failing to pay up when it turned out the other way around—and how could a son collect on his old man, anyway, after catching sixteen trout to his old man’s sorry seven? I’d pick up that case of Dominion out of my own funds and we’d get a fire going by the cabin, downing those beers one after the other with each lake trout we ate, flipping a coin for the last Dominion, and me lying to Father about which side of the coin came up because I knew even then, when I was eighteen, nineteen or twenty—those few years when Joey was still too young to be out drinking with us—that my days with him were numbered, that the odds had to pan out soon enough against him, as they tended to do with regularity over that flip of the coin for the last beer. And what kind of son, knowing this, would deny his old man the last Dominion?He’d already done a stretch when I was small—went in when I was five and came out when I was nine. It was, Mother tells me now and again, like a stranger coming home—for her as well as for me. We’d gotten used to living without him, although I got teased at school, of course, when the other kids found out. They’d surround me against the back wall of the school and sing out, “Billy-Billy Tucker’s father’s a fucker. They locked him in the pen and now he won’t get out again.” Well, those kids were wrong on both accounts and when Father got out he made a point of walking me to school, to lend my life the fatherly presence it had lacked in those influential years of growing up and learning to get along without friends or a father. Well, the way I had it figured I didn’t need any friends anyway, so long as I could drop anyone who gave me trouble with a quick shot to the face—broke more than a few noses before my tenth birthday, I did. Joey started keeping count for fun when he was old enough—not sure if I ever made the century mark but it was close. I had Joey anyway—him being born just a few months before Father went in that first time, and me teaching him what I knew as quickly as he could absorb it. He had a leg up on any other four-year old in the neighborhood, Joey did, him being about twice his age in experience thanks to what I taught him. If anything, Joey wasn’t afraid enough of the world and lived, for the longest time, with the illusion that I could take care of any problem which he couldn’t take care of himself—which was true enough for a time, most often, anyways. When Father came back, though, Joey didn’t know who he was at all. For Joey, Father was just an extra presence in the house, a stranger who’d made a curious claim on the bed Mother slept in and who had the peculiar habit of fixing him breakfast in the morning and calling him by name. It was years before Joey had any real affection for the old man—and what with each of them winding up doing time while the other one was free, they didn’t really see much of each other their whole lives, as things turned out.