Curt Lang: the Renaissance Man Nobody Knew

Posted by Howard on Jan 13, 2013

At the World’s Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver by Claudia Cornwall (Mother Tongue, 2011) is a book I never expected to see written, though I am delighted to be wrong. I knew Curt Lang, and like most people the author interviewed, I found him one of the more remarkable people I ever encountered. When I first met him he was dabbling in publishing, and in fact the first stand-alone book I ever published was one I co-published with Curt in 1972, a facsimile reprint of the Dictionary of Chinook Jargon, originally published in 1899 by T.N. Hibben. I got hooked and published 600 more books, while Curt moved on.

That in a nutshell, was the story of Curt Lang's life: moving on. He had been discovered by the visiting British novelist Malcolm Lowry at age 18, who pronounced him the most talented poet since Shakespeare, but before he could prove Lowry right he gave up writing as a career and turned to playing experimental jazz. Somewhere along the way he did a turn as a painter, staying at it just long enough to denounce Vancouver's art establishment as tame imitators. Curt was a great talker and a world-class insulter. Following my encounter with him in his brief stint as a publisher, he took up photography, which he dropped after a few years to become a boat builder and sometime later a developer of computer software.

My mother used to call people like Curt “flibbertigibbets,” but Curt was no common flibbertigibbet. When he was onto a new pursuit he became obsessed by it and invariably positioned himself at the very cutting edge of its development. He was never satisfied just to create an average example of whatever it was. It had to be the most far-out example you’d ever heard of.

Photo0010At the World’s Edge is well produced on coated stock with oversize pages replete with many photos including a 50-page portfolio of Curt's own, but one photo I would have liked to have seen would be of the 35-foot fishing boat he built in 1975, the Whalebird. It was perhaps his cockeyed masterpiece, and certainly his most characteristic creation. Curt designed and fabricated it himself out of welded aluminum, at the time an advanced method, especially using compound bends the way he did. But the Whalebird was the weirdest-looking boat you ever saw. It had a whaleback deck design, giving it the appearance of a high-floating submarine, and the pilothouse was positioned aft of the hatch, causing Curt’s brother Greg to say it looked like “a phone booth in a bath tub.” Adding to the odd effect was the fact the ribs were outside the hull, like a man wearing his underwear outside his trousers. Of course Curt had persuasive arguments for all of these innovations, but the boat was brutal to use and after five hard years finding out just how difficult it was to be a commercial fisherman, he lost it to the bank.

In his final phase as a software developer, Curt found a pursuit for which his high-octane brain was especially well-suited. He created some successful programs but failed at the business side of things and got squeezed out, leaving others to profit from his work.

Might-have-beens don’t usually rate biographies but Curt Lang was such an outstanding example he thoroughly deserves the honour, a point about which Claudia Cornwall’s well-researched and highly readable book leaves no doubt.