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Fiction Family Life

Norman Bray, In the Performance of His Life

by (author) Trevor Cole

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Mar 2005
Family Life, Literary, Humorous
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2005
    List Price

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Finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and Caribbean region)

A Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year

For years, Toronto stage actor Norman Bray has renounced all responsibility in the name of his “art.” Now, middle-aged, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, and clinging to the faded light of his career, Norman must answer to the bank, to the adult children of his recently deceased common-law wife, and, most of all, to his own illusions about himself. Making matters worse, Amy, his stepdaughter-of-a-sort, discovers her late mother’s journals and the unhappiness they contain. Meanwhile, Norman finds himself embroiled in the affairs of an attractive neighbour, with unexpected consequences. Highly original, skewering, hilarious, humane, Trevor Cole’s brilliant debut looks at the precarious ties of love and family and the plight of a man who has reached the end of the line — and has only himself to blame.

About the author

Trevor Cole is an award-winning journalist and novelist. His previous books include Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, a Maclean's bestseller, shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book, Canada-Caribbean region, longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Fearsome Particles, also shortlisted for the GGLA and longlisted for the IMPAC; and Practical Jean, nominated for the Rogers' Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. He lives in Toronto.

Trevor Cole's profile page


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
  • Nominated, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book

Excerpt: Norman Bray, In the Performance of His Life (by (author) Trevor Cole)

“You’re fucking late, Norman.” Robert Chenowirth, bald, lacquered with sweat, and aggressively unshaven, sits in front of an aging control panel on a swivel chair so flimsy that its ability to withstand his enormous bulk defies logic to the point of sorcery. His vast T-shirted belly (the T-shirt, black, features a startling woodcut of Liza Minnelli) is pressed into the ledge of the switching board, billowing above and below, but even so he has to extend his arms to rest his hands next to the yellowed controls. He is famous within his industry largely for having not yet died.

Kitty-corner to him the studio technician, Bink Laughren, glances over the top of his Dick Francis novel at a green oscillating-wave monitor. Norman hears Penny come up behind him.

“I’m sure you said two o’clock, Robert,” implores Norman. “I’m positive. Whatever Penny says, I don’t miss my call times. You know that. I’m a goddamn professional.”

Chenowirth turns his head, an oiled ball dipped in metal filings, towards Norman for the first time, his threatening glare undercut just slightly by the feathery catch in his voice. “You missed this one.”

“But not —”

Robert swings his fists as if he’s pounding two sturdy lawn ornaments into the earth. “Oh Jesus Mary, Norman, just get into the booth. Somebody give him his fucking script.”

It is unfairness to such a degree that Norman considers walking out in protest. It’s what he should do. But instead — because he is a goddamn professional, and to some lesser extent because he needs the money — he takes the pages Penny hands him and makes his way back along the hall. He wrenches open the sound booth’s outer door and pushes on the inner, which gives with a slurp of air, and he enters a tiny room fronted by a large glass window looking out into the control room.

“Hello, Judith.” Norman nods at the actress already seated at one of two microphones and smiles to suggest that nothing is wrong, that he has had a perfectly reasonable conversation with Robert, an eminently reasonable man. Judith Fenwick, a matronly sort of woman smelling of hand cream and tea, regards him overtop pewter reading glasses tipped with tiny wings.

“I’ve had a very nice time going through this week’s papers, Norman, which someone was kind enough to leave on the floor.” She speaks with the vestiges of an elusive English accent, like so many other moderately talented actresses of middle age whom Norman has encountered. “I was about to start balancing my cheque book.”

Norman nods distractedly and emits a short humming sound, because he is essaying the role of an actor concentrating on his script. It is, just as he expects, the script for episode #001 of Tiny Taxi, a fifteen-minute children’s show produced on a delicately small budget for the new digital cable channel KidSpot. In concept and execution it is identical to Timmy Taxi, which Chenowirth produced over the previous two years for another channel (and for which Norman provided the lead character’s voice for all forty-two brief and brightly lit episodes) until Robert discovered an unnoticed clause in his contract that required him, after ten years, to relinquish his residual rights. Because he had planned to retire on the steady earnings of Timmy Taxi, and because the broad­caster’s lawyers would not bend to his protestations that the contract was void because he’d been hopelessly adrift over a failed affair — and very likely drunk on gin toddies — when he’d signed it, Robert folded his company, established another one, acquired a new cable partner, and resumed taping in the same studio, with the same set, after only a month’s delay. (Penny, whose employment contract calls for her to share in a percentage of the residuals in lieu of a decent salary, had tears in her eyes when she gathered the cast and crew to present Robert with a small celebratory taxi-shaped lemon cake.)

That Timmy-less month was an awkward one for Norman, who for these last two years has relied on his cheques from Chenowirth Productions more than he would care to admit. It necessitated visiting his sister on at least three occasions (it was four, to be precise, but one of those times she was at the doctor’s seeing to polyps on her colon, so it didn’t count) to negotiate the loan of sums so small they hardly warranted the inconvenience.

But yesterday, the first day in the life of Tiny Taxi, it was as though nothing had changed. The production process was the same: Wednesday afternoon, on a set no larger than an area rug, colourful toy cars with removable headlight eyes and toothy grilles were videotaped being pushed around the snap-together streets of Grandville by wires and unseen hands. On Wednesday evening, from six until midnight, the actors arrived to give voice to their dreams and dilemmas. Having played the robustly cheerful Timmy for so long, Norman adapted easily, he thought, to the demands of playing the equally jolly Tiny, whose only bane in life is the mildly menacing Cab Calladay (formerly Ty Cab), who seems to lurk around every corner waiting to muscle in on his fares. Last night, in fact, Norman was noting to Penny and Judith, and Fred Trumble, who plays Cab, that he really understood Timmy/Tiny, that it was not a stretch to say their essential nature mirrored his own. “Each of us is optimistic at the core,” he explained. “Willing to explore the unknown. Willing to embrace the new.” It wouldn’t have surprised him to find out that Robert had based the character entirely on him. As Timmy, Norman had even contributed the signature line: “Up the street or down the road, it’s all a trip to me!” delivered with the eager chirp he’d perfected after only a few months. (For Tiny, Robert, who writes most of the scripts, had adapted the line to read, “You never know, you know, where the next turn will take you!” which Norman granted was snappy, but seemed to lack the texture of Timmy’s sang-froid.)

Editorial Reviews

“The flat-out funniest novel of the year.… In the tradition of novels like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Cole gives us a flawed protagonist facing a crisis, then ratchets up the comedy as the protagonist digs himself in more deeply.…”
Winnipeg Free Press

“This is a very, very funny book.… Trevor Cole knows how to tell a story of the I-couldn’t-put-it-down variety; Norman’s performance is filled with giddy surprises and wonderful set pieces. The book is smart and deft; it zips along. This is fine writing, with a light and generous touch.… Just delicious!”
Globe and Mail

“The funniest book on offer.… Endlessly entertaining.… Norman Bray is a triumph for Trevor Cole.”
“Norman Bray, like the novel he occupies, is complex, amusing, charming, vexing, and vastly entertaining. He’s a character you cannot forget and you thank god he doesn’t live next door. Trevor Cole has enormous talent.”
–Paul Quarrington

“Trevor Cole, in his debut novel, has created a character as complex, infuriating, unpleasant and funny as any we’ve seen in a long time.… Howlingly funny.… Norman Bray takes on a life that spills beyond the covers of Trevor Cole’s sparkling novel…”
–Montreal Gazette

“Trevor Cole has created a highly original character – one of those rare fictional beings who is impossible to forget.… Darkly funny and perfectly pitched, Cole’s novel introduces an intriguing new voice in fiction.”
Calgary Herald
“In Norman Bray, Trevor Cole gives a star turn.”
National Post
“Cole belongs to the Truman Capote school of stylists; his prose is clear as a mountain stream.…”
–David Gilmour, Toronto Star

“Cole’s great accomplishment is to write seductively and sympathetically about someone as narcissistic and bullying as is actor Norman Bray, leaving the reader in a wonderfully uneasy state of delight and horror. Tightly structured, funny, poignant – this wonderful novel delivers the pleasure of seeing that Norman is, under the correct circumstances, capable of leaving himself behind.”
–Jury citation, Governor General’s Award

“Cole deftly manipulates tone, diction, and point of view to create a brilliant study of Norman’s persecuted artist persona and the peculiarly endearing person who hides behind it. The narrative voice is agile and witty.… Extraordinary.”
Quill & Quire
Norman Bray is so smart and funny, and it moves along with such speed, you’re almost tricked into thinking it’s a comedy. But this book is more than that – Cole has written a layered, resonant novel, full of surprises.”
–Sarah Fulford, Toronto Life

“There are delicate, subtle shadings of characterizations, hidden pockets of humour and observations of the human condition that make Norman Bray a rewarding read.… Cole has written a punchy, frothy first novel that rings true on many levels.”
Edmonton Journal

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