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article imageReview: Doolittle's Rob Ford exposé is a compelling, if limited, read Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Mar 10, 2014 in Entertainment
“Rob Ford might be a genius – if not of the academic variety, certainly of the kind that matters in politics,” Robyn Doolittle writes in “Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story,” her bestselling account of the notorious Toronto mayor's career.
And Doolittle ought to know, because her quick rise as a journalist is undeniably a result of the political freak show that has haunted Hogtown for the past year. The Toronto Star City Hall reporter is one of only three known journalists who have seen the infamous phone video of Ford smoking from an apparent crack pipe and making ethnic and homophobic slurs — a video that Toronto police chief Bill Blair confirmed existed in October.
Since then, T.O.'s crack-smoking mayor has become a worldwide punchline, particularly on American late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live. Amazingly, Ford has not only remained mayor, but also retained much of his following and arguably benefited from the celebrity. But while outsiders laugh at Ford's buffoonery (and understandably so), they may not be fully aware of the dark places from which these scandals and controversies have come. Doolittle's book examines Ford's bizarre journey from the quiet youngest son of a respected businessman to an eccentric, outspoken right-wing city councillor and, finally, the planet's best-known municipal politician.
Crazy Town is irresistible for anyone who loves a good scandal — or just a good story. Doolittle's straightforward journalistic prose is easy reading without coming off as dumbed-down, although she occasionally indulges in one of my most frustrating pet peeves about contemporary English by using the word “impact” as a verb. But despite being compelling reading, the book suffers from an inconsistency of tone and a feeling of being unfinished, and there's a reason: Doolittle researched and wrote it in a period of only three months, while also continuing to work for the Star. You get the impression that either Doolittle or her publisher, Viking Canada, wanted to rush the book into the public's hands quickly while the story was still hot. (Viking originally planned to release it this month, then changed the date to February 3.)
Front cover of book on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
Front cover of book on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
“When Toronto voters chose Rob Ford to be their mayor on October 25, 2010, they knew full well they were electing a flawed man,” Doolittle writes. “And voters also knew that when this loud, stranger-than-fiction character from Etobicoke got into trouble, his instinct was to try to lie his way out of it.” Crazy Town covers Ford's legendary knack for getting into trouble, both recent and long-past, and most of it will be familiar to Torontonians who've paid even scant attention to city politics over the last several years. For them, Crazy Town may be entertaining as a sort of short-term tabloid nostalgia, with its constant evocations of local places and recent events; everything from Ford's Florida impaired-driving conviction to his drunken hockey-game outburst to the Marg Delahunty incident to the Sarah Thomson groping is crammed in there. People outside of Toronto will be more likely to go slack-jawed at the lurid details.
Crazy Town delves into the background of Ford's family, which actually considers itself a Canadian version of the Kennedys for its business success and political ambitions. His father, Doug Ford, Sr., was a high-school dropout (not unusual back then) who ran an adhesive-product company and later served as a member of Ontario's parliament under Mike Harris' conservative government. His four children had “extremely privileged lives compared to his humble beginnings.” But wealth and status don't guarantee stability. Rob Ford's two oldest siblings, Kathy and Randy, have a history of drug use and crime, while Kathy has been connected to gun violence through volatile relationships with men. Doug Ford, Jr., now a Toronto city councillor and Rob's right-hand man, is still rumoured to have been a hash dealer in Etobicoke while in his teens during the early 1980s.
Doolittle describes the teenage Rob Ford as shy and quiet with few close friends. But it was during high school that he first clicked with two lifetime loves: football and drugs. “Robbie liked his weed,” she quotes from one of his high-school buddies. Telling points, but you can't help wishing that Doolittle had spent more time on Ford's youth, if only to get a sense of how he became what he is, or at least to search for a Rosebud of some kind.
She does a decent job of explaining the political and legal context of how Ford got (and stayed) in power in the first place, an essential backgrounder for outsiders. Although downtown Toronto is known for its liberalism and multiculturalism, the amalgamation of all of its boroughs into a “megacity” in 1998 has enabled mass suburbanites to vote in conservative mayors like Ford and Mel Lastman to serve the entire Toronto area. In addition, Canada's archaic access-to-information laws have made it difficult for reporters to find out specific details about such telling incidents as alleged domestic violence at Ford's home on Christmas Day in 2011; right to privacy sometimes trumps right to know. “Canadians might not realize it, but they live in one of the more secretive countries in the developed world,” Doolittle writes.
Perhaps because of this secrecy, even readers who think they know the Ford story may be surprised by a few of Doolittle's revelations. Evidently, the famously protective Rob-Doug relationship isn't quite as tight as public spin would have you believe. “Those close to Doug Ford, Jr. say that not so deep down, he resented Rob,” she claims about Rob's first year in office. “Friends and former staff go so far as to say that none of the three brothers get along very well. Sometimes they go months without speaking.” She also reveals that Rob Ford may have started doing cocaine after his father's death in 2006 — and that a server at the Bier Markt spotted him snorting blow on St. Patrick's Day in 2012.
And one enlightening passage in the book involves a secretly recorded conversation between Ford's wife, Renata, and an acquaintance at a Tim Hortons parking lot, shortly after Ford's 2010 election. “He still thinks he's going to party,” Mrs. Ford told the acquaintance. “He thinks... 'I'll get off the pills, but I'm not giving up the blow.'”
It's an engrossing tale, yet the tone awkwardly wavers between that of a standard biography and that of a more subjective personal story. Doolittle switches to first-person narration when recounting her own professional involvement in the crack-video scandal, and sometimes it adds a welcome personal flavour. “My eyes welled with tears,” she recalls about the moment when Chief Blair confirmed the video's existence. “It wasn't about being vindicated... It was about the truth coming out to the public. It was about loving the job we do and knowing how important it was.” But as a whole, Crazy Town would have worked better if Doolittle had chosen one type of storytelling or the other and stuck with it. I'd like to think she'd have done this if she'd had more than three months to write the book.
Crazy Town is a sensational story that both benefits and suffers from its timeliness. It's about a subject that everybody's talking about right now — hence the media attention Doolitte has been getting — but the rush to publication means that it's a story without an ending. Ford's still getting plenty of headlines, and the election is more than seven months away. Let's hope Doolittle can offer us a full-length biography someday, years from now, when all of the craziness is behind us.
More about Rob Ford, Books, Robyn Doolittle, Biography, Toronto Star
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