PROMISED LANDS Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s describes my early life in the small town of Kingsville in southwestern Ontario, the growing allure of the hippie counter culture, my eagerness to get away and see the world, travels in Europe and the Middle East, and student life in the “swinging London” of the late 1960s. It ends with the birth of my son, Sam.
A noted York University English literature and theatre professor wrote this about the book:
“Regarding PROMISED LANDS by Douglas Williams: This remarkable book offers an extraordinarily candid recollection of the odyssey of a young man from small-town, Protestant, 1950s Ontario in a quest for adventure and self-discovery in Europe and the Middle East. By turns hilarious, provocative and deeply sad, it’s an irresistibly disarming portrait of blighted youth blundering through a notorious period of social upheaval. The poignancy, wit and truthfulness of the writing are spellbinding.”
Robert Fothergill, Professor Emeritus
Department of Theatre, York University
Further praise comes from an equally-impressive academic source:
“Promised Lands is beautifully written, and the style is clear, slyly allusive, and full of superb turns of phrase… It is a compulsively good read and, I think, a brilliant book. It contributes significantly to the body of literature about the road-trippers and hippies of the 1960s, but it does far more than that. By stepping back in the middle of his narrative to give an account of his home town, his parents, and his childhood, Doug gives us the back-story that shows why and how travel, sex, and art had such a liberating effect on him and many others of his (our) generation.”
Edward Lobb Professor Emeritus of English Queen’s University, Kingston
But, wonderful as it is, praise for PROMISED LANDS is not limited to academics. Below, following the excerpts, please find a series of Readers Reviews from Amazon.
BTW: You can buy PROMISED LANDS at:
From Part One, Let’s Have Fun Instead, which begins on a November morning in 1966:
Chapter 1 KEROUAC’S CHILDREN
I saw the best minds of my generation go off to university in the mid-Sixties. Some of the rest of us – wanderers, riffraff, bohemians, freaks, wayfarers, beatniks, hippies and the broken-hearted, we who had decided to sidestep participation in becoming the most educated generation in history – saved up U$167.00 and flew Icelandic Airways to Luxembourg.
I think broken hearts were common to many of us. The choice to reject mainstream pursuits can be grounded in a mixture of ill fortune, sadness and pride. My habitual optimism had reached an all-time low by the time I flunked out of high school, and rejection of conventional life options now came naturally…
… Paul and I were embarked on a poor man’s tour of the world (our copy of Europe On $5 A Day was discarded as “frat-boy bullshit”). We had walked to the edge of town, braved the taunts of the local “philistines” who paraded past in their new Camaros and GTOs en route to the Ford and GM plants in Windsor or the potash works in Sarnia, and stuck out our thumbs, holding a sign saying Athens, Greece! Specificity about which Athens was important. “Oh look – the other Athens,” said some passers-by. Ontario had its very own, perfectly good Athens, London and Paris, and confident that the “other Athens” offered no July Ploughing Match and Tractor Pull, no August Cornfest, no mercury-rich Lake Erie Fish Fry popular among autistic kids hoping for careers as candy thermometers, they gave our destination not another thought.
But there was another side of Kingsville life that reflected more elemental concerns, regarding things like the nature of existence, itself:
In late spring, after lengthy gestation in Lake Erie’s muddy floor, billions of mayflies burst to the water’s surface and rise into the air in shimmering clouds. Those that escape being eaten by fish and birds descend on Kingsville. They cling to every surface, their glassy wings shiver in the breeze. They carpet the sidewalks and crackle under foot, their fishy odour fills the town, and drivers lose control as their wheels spin on pavement grumous with insect slime. Inquisitive children experience torture’s first pleasures by pulling off their wings and tails.
Mayflies arrive at night, attracted by lights along the shore. One year, Kingsville town council draped the street lamps in red cloths, bathing the darkness in a blood-stained glow. The bugs came anyway. In the morning, workers shovelled them from the gutters and pulled down the cloths. The reason for this massive demonstration of Lake Erie’s fecundity remains a mystery. Once landed, the bugs never fly again and seem to serve no purpose but to die, dry up and blow away.
Part Three, Condemned To Be Free, describes my overland journey from Athens to Jerusalem, and beyond. In this excerpt, I smoked hashish with a group of Arabs beside the Dead Sea:
Chapter 36 DO THE DEAD SEE?
Our last stop before Israel was the Dead Sea. We arrived on its bleak, treeless shores late on the warm afternoon of the 21st of February. The water was dead calm and gave the impression that there was never a ripple – if there were lakes on the moon, they would look like this. In the distance was a single, modern hotel, just built and deserted-looking. We drove down to the water’s edge, stripped off and plunged in. The extremely high salt content made the act of swimming akin to being a beach ball floating on the surface – you couldn’t submerge. The water seemed to eject you, forcing you back up to the surface. It reminded me of playing with a beaker of mercury in high school: you could stick your finger into the shimmering liquid and it would almost squeeze you out. This buoyancy rated as one of the coolest experiences we’d ever had.
Mountains rose to the west of us, and blue shadows crept across the water as the sun began to sink. It gets cold fast in the desert after sundown. We towelled off and noticed that the darkening hillsides were dotted with campfires. Then some Arabs, who had built a fire further down the beach, hailed us. There were three of them, one dressed in western style pants and wind breaker, the other two in traditional garb. We shook hands and they invited us to join them for something to eat. Over lamb kebabs, expertly cooked, we told them where we were from and where we were going. We had learned to refer to Israel with the popular Arab term “Disneyland”. Despite Walt Disney’s purported anti-Semitism, the name encapsulated Arab contempt for American support of their formidable neighbour, with their flashy war toys supplied by the U.S. military-industrial complex. There was some slightly bitter joking about “Disneyland” and what a nice place it was. They had met many others like us – young North Americans and Europeans who embarked on “exciting and dangerous” tours through Arab lands before seeking refuge in the safety of the kibbutzim. At that time they were losing the anti- Israel propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the West – public opinion has become more favourable since. The June war would create new definitions: no longer was Israel’s population “Jews” – with all the victim-connotations that accompanied the term – but Israelis, who defeated Arab armies with ease, with rumours of an atom bomb.
The sun had just dipped behind the mountains when they took out the hashish. It was strong and dark – like the faces and the eyes of the men who offered it. Many joints were passed and the scene was tranquil and relaxed. When I asked about the .45 automatic in his belt, the western-dressed confessed that he was a policeman from Egypt. Alarms went off in my hash-dimmed brain: was he just a cop on vacation – or something more sinister? Who took guns on vacation? We were too stoned to run, but he didn’t seem about to arrest us anyway. I stretched out with my feet warming near the fire, and looked over my shoulder. Herds of black and brown goats were descending the hillside through the twilight, stopping intermittently to graze. Presently, they joined us by the fire. Their goatees and little revolving mouths made them look pensive, almost wise, as they stared into the flames with their alien eyes.
Then the goatherds joined the party. They talked quietly, taking long tokes from the joint and deep pulls of orange soda. One squatted by the fire across from me and told a long story to appreciative laughter from our hosts. The Egyptian shrugged with a twinkling smile in my direction: “Untranslatable,” he said, politely. The evening was arid, windless and cool, and the smoke rose straight up into a cloudless sky and a new moon. Including the goats, there were now about seven hundred of us around the fire. I looked down at the traces of sea salt on my fingers. I hadn’t washed for a week, but my body was dry and odourless. I thought of T. E. Lawrence’s reply when asked what he liked about the desert: “It’s clean,” he said.
The stamps in our passport called it “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”, and they weren’t kidding. We had heard all about how the primo stuff was made and told everyone we met: In high summer the beautiful, blond (!), female virgins of the villag Everyone had fallen silent as darkness crept in among the goats. The policeman threw a log on the fire, and a plume of sparks roiled up towards the firmament. We rose, shook their hands and thanked our hosts, and drove away through the moonlight towards Jerusalem.
* * * *
Here are some Readers Reviews from Amazon.com:
5 out of 5 stars Gorgeously Written Memoir August 29, 2012 By Nina Queensolver (Toronto, Ontario Canada) – See all my reviews This review is from: Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
Promised Lands took me completely by surprise. I thought I’d found something amusing to distract me on my vacation – and there’s no question about it, parts of this book are hilarious – but I didn’t expect to be so genuinely moved. Douglas Williams is a fearless writer. He exposes not just the desire for sexual adventure that sent him running off to see the world, but also his deepest regrets and longings – making this a book that does a lot more than just evoke Baby Boomer nostalgia. It also tells a story that is neither age nor gender specific, but presents truths about the human condition that manage to be both entertaining and profound. And the writing is so good that even though you could breeze through this book if you want to, you’ll find yourself savoring it, reading paragraphs again and again because the voice is so enjoyable. This is a great read, I really hope there’s a sequel!
5 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Memoir, April 27 2013 By Proteus “Edward”
This review is from: Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
Promised Lands, which deals with “growing up absurd in the 1950s and 1960s” is a compulsively good read and, I think, a brilliant book. It contributes significantly to the body of literature about the road-trippers and hippies of the 1960s, but it does far more than that. By stepping back in the middle of his narrative to give an account of his hometown, his parents, and his childhood, Williams gives us the back-story that shows why and how travel, sex, and art had such a liberating effect on him and many others of his generation. He also shows how the idealism and optimism of those years sustained him while also raising hopes for social and political change that were ultimately disappointed.
Good memoirs tell us not only about the author but about the time and the culture. Williams’s description of Kingsville in the 1940s and 1950s, and of his parents’ lives and hopes, is both precise and evocative. While he is very funny on “the sheer, inescapable awfulness of hailing from Nowhere, Ontario” (138), he also shows the underside of a small-town philistine culture where racism and sexism were the norm. The meagre expectations, the indifference or hostility to art and intelligence, the Calvinist resentment of those who escape or even dream about doing so—Williams captures all of these in scenes as vivid as an Alice Munro short story set in the same barren territory. The effect is, paradoxically, not at all depressing, because the very young Williams, ignorant and innocent as he is, nevertheless knows that there must be more to life than this, goes off to find it, and grows into the intelligent, urbane and wry narrator of this book. That narrator can look back at his young self with both affection and irony, and it is that double perspective that makes Promised Lands both comic and very moving. He is especially good and excruciatingly funny on the inchoate but grandiose sexual ambitions of young men: “The oasis ahead was sure to be full of dancing girls and large pillows,” he writes (63), and “I would raise my staff and the Red Sea would be parted.” (165) The book shows us what life was like for the generation that followed Kerouac and Ginsberg and tried to follow the same path in the 1960s, whether in North America or in Europe.
Promised Lands is beautifully written, and the style is clear, slyly allusive, and full of superb turns of phrase. Williams can write about “putting blood-coloured roses in the hands of white marble women” in a Greek cemetery (62), or about the “undulating slurry of dead fish, plastic bottles, and used condoms” (132) at the Kingsville dock—an image worthy of The Waste Land. The final effect of the book is very poignant; comedy, coming of age, crazy happiness and idealism are set against the inevitable disappointments and disillusionments that follow. Most of this memoir deals with the good side of the 1960s, but towards the end of the book he touches on what came next (Reagan, Thatcher, the culture of greed and selfishness) and that sense of loss is something that every truly adult reader can understand and relate to.
5.0 out of 5 stars No Holds Barred!, November 10, 2012 by Trebor Revrac – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
They say that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there – but Williams seems to have accomplished the impossible, recalling with great clarity an epic array of locations, characters and situations encountered while in the pursuit of becoming “interesting”! Perhaps, as his son Sam tells him, it istered while in the pursuit of becoming “interesting”! Perhaps, as his son Sam tells him, its because the hashish was much weaker in those days, and he muses that maybe he was never really stoned at all! Colourful, cynical, funny, profound, tender and very, very candid, “Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s” has something to offend everyone!
5.0 out of 5 stars Humour, adventure, love and growth.., November 5, 2012 by Pam Dineen – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
In his memoir Douglas Williams captures beautifully the stifling nature of the 50s and of small-minded, small town Ontario and the yearning of a young man who could only dream of what lay beyond its borders. His adventures in Europe are told with incredible humour, but it is his willingness to expose his humanity and his struggles in a clear authentic voice that sets this book apart.
5.0 out of 5 stars Existential Excursion, September 4, 2012 by
Not Svevo – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
Douglas Williams is an entertaining guide on this existential excursion from small town Ontario to Europe and the Middle East of the 1960s. Fuelled by angst, irony and outrage, Williams’ road trip takes us back to a nomadic hippie world that has long since been vanquished by the corporate power he so despises. But along the way, we also get to know the author personally and in-depth. Through a series of revealing side trips, audacious character studies and surreal fantasies, Williams delivers an engaging mise-en-scène of his life and loves. In the end, he may not have reached the fabled promised lands of the title but he has given the rest of us something more interesting: a compelling self-portrait of a man reflecting on meaning and memory.
5.0 out of 5 stars Witty, Wise and Humane, August 28, 2012 by Sugith Varughese (Toronto, Ontario Canada) – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
Promised Lands details the author’s picaresque semi-stoned adventures in Europe in 1967. His account is by turn laugh-out-loud funny and profound as he runs away from his repressed small town Ontario upbringing for the ancient cultures of Greece. He then makes his way through eastern Europe and the middle East, where he gets trapped on the Jordan-Israel border during 1967’s Six Day War, eventually escaping to Italy where irate drivers threaten him as they ignore his outstretched thumb, and culminating in glorious France where his descriptions of the food delight. His eventual settling in London to study film brings the adventure to a halt as he embraces Trotskyism as a way through the Orwellian despair of the British class system.
His memory is acute and confirmed with the inclusion of faded photographs and artifacts, bringing faces to the names of the sharply drawn characters he meets along the way. The story Williams tells is enhanced with his personal self-deprecating voice which made me feel, not only along for the ride, but sympathetic to the driver. His political interpretations and wry observations coupled with a hilarious way of depicting cultures bewildering to his sheltered younger self make this book so much more than mere travelogue. It’s a journey of self-discovery.
By the end, I felt refreshed. I’d been told a wonderful tale by an old friend. Highest recommendation.
5.0 out of 5 stars Irreverant and Geopolitical, August 22, 2012 by Long Shadow (Silicon Valley) – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Kindle Edition)
A ‘tongue in cheek’ – albeit a sharp tongued – recollection of coming of age in the 1960’s. A North American in Europe on $1/day meets poverty, drugs and geopolitics with humor, outrage and angst. A screenwriter would have a heyday with the well-written descriptive scenes Mr. Williams paints. A touch of “Stand By Me”, “Borat” and Reds (Special 25th Anniversary Edition) — the book was funny, thought-provoking and wistful. If you were ‘real’ in the sixties this book connects the dots. If you wish you were real in the sixties, this will take you there. Enjoy!!
5.0 out of 5 stars Promised Lands, October 1, 2012 by Brent Weaver – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
Promised Lands is a boy’s remarkable odyssey into manhood and becoming ‘an interesting person’. His quest for carnal and spiritual enlightment is well written, brutally candid, and thoroughly entertaining. Mr. Williams emerges indeed as a very interesting person.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fulfilled Promise, August 18, 2012 by jessoffel – See all my reviews Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s (Paperback)
The narrative alternates between travel diary and flashbacks to the author’s early years in the stifling atmosphere of small-town ontario, creating a sort of dialectic which leads us to examine questions of our existence and of reality itself. Promised Lands is, indeed, the classic tale of the wandering hero on a quest. On the way, we are treated to wild flights of fancy and biting, self-deprecating humor. Thrilling, thoughtful, and outrageously funny, this is a great read for all the searchers of the world.
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