Fiction

Going down swinging

Last Days Of Montreal
John Brooke

Signature Editions
$19.95
paper
300pp
0-921833-91-1

You can tell a lot about a writer by his choice of symbols. As his embodiment of post-Referendum Montreal, former Torontonian John Brooke picks an unnamed, antisocial, heavy-drinking wheelchair-bound man of mixed French and Anglo parentage, known only as Last Days, short for a sign on the back of his chair that says “Last Days of Montreal.” A self-appointed “emmerdeur , a spoiler of what little good remains,” Last Days rolls around town offending all and sundry. He’s not a garden variety misanthrope, though. His behaviour is rooted in love for his home city. It’s his black-humour revenge on the politicians and assorted big-wigs who have carved it up for their own gain. As he says while talking a woman out of suicide on the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, “Don’t just slip over the side of a bridge! Rub their noses in it!”

Already, then, Brooke has a leg up on the standard Two Solitudes scenario so often resorted to in Montreal novels. Last Days doesn’t play all that huge a role in terms of space in this book – he’s more a connector, occasional court jester, a mocking presence lurking just out of shot. But his spirit is the driving force. Most of the action actually takes place in a district of mostly Francophones and immigrants near Jean-Talon, where the disaffected Anglo Bruce and his partner from France, Geneviève, are making their way through a winter made all the more gloomy by the Referendum hangover. There’s also the heroin-addicted son of the neighbourhood dealer, a grieving widow flying the fleur-de-lys from her balcony as a signal to her husband in heaven, Italian relatives in a duplex who haven’t spoken in thirty years, a woman who talks to trees, an opportunistic talk radio host, a visiting American baseball announcer who succumbs to the Curse of the Expos, and many more.

Such a cast may call to mind the usual unity-in-diversity clichés, but Brooke consistently subverts expectations with surprising, sometimes even shocking scenarios. Sections that can stand alone are arranged, montage-style, to create a whole greater than the sum of its considerable parts. The chapter “The Woman Who Got Dressed in the Morning” is a dazzlingly sustained lyrical flight as moving – to continue the film parallel – as the sequence in Magnolia where all the different characters start singing the same Aimee Mann song. Tossing any fear of political incorrectness exactly where it belongs, Brooke describes how a neighbourhood woman’s daily dressing ritual – which just happens to be visible from the street – becomes a symbol of life and possibility for the men of the street. Other passages, especially some of the rants of Last Days, are reminiscent of another recent high point in cinematic history: Edward Norton’s love/hate tirade against all of New York in 25th Hour.

Brooke is unafraid to follow his characters into their darkest impulses, as when a woman, driven to distraction by anxiety and boredom, casually kills a neighbour. The effect, while disturbing, is far from gratuitous, since Brooke has fleshed out his characters so thoroughly that we are willing to accept their motives if not always their actions. It’s called compassion and it’s a quality Last Days of Montreal possesses in spades.

One initial concern I had while reading this book is that it may have been a little too specific in its setting and time. Montreal in the nineties, after all, was going through a unique process, the finer points of which may not be accessible to those who weren’t there. By the end, though, my concerns had long since evaporated. John Brooke shows himself to be the kind of writer who can consistently achieve that noblest of fiction’s aims: to render the local so faithfully that it becomes, paradoxically, universal. mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette. He is the author of the bestselling novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry, and is currently working on a memoir about life as an obsessive fan of soul, reggae, and hip-hop.

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