Feature

Bohemian Rhapsody

A Fine Ending
Louis Rastelli

Insomniac Press
$21.95
paper
319pp
978-1-89717-849-2

Every good bohemia needs its chroniclers, people who are of the scene but in crucial ways a little outside it too. People who, among the chaos and the excess and the occasional lassitude and the living for the moment, keep enough perspective to get it all down. Louis Rastelli was very much a part of the Montreal Plateau scene in the ’90s, that recession era that encompassed the Referendum and the Ice Storm and culminated, or fizzled out, with Y2K. And he was definitely taking notes. The result, part elegy, part celebration, part parallel-universe Friends, is A Fine Ending. It’s an episodically structured novel whose charms may take some time to make themselves felt but whose parts eventually coalesce into a vivid, funny, and touching record of a unique time and place. If you weren’t there, don’t worry. Rastelli was.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the author is a dyed-in-the-wool Montrealer. “I was adopted,” says the 36-year-old over a beer in the back patio of Casa del Popolo on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. “My biological as well as adoptive mother are French-Canadian. Both my parents were born in Montreal, pretty much the entire family on both sides still live in Montreal and has done since WWI or before, and everyone has always spoken both English and French.”

Looking over his largely unsung but crucial role in Montreal’s indie culture of the past 15 years it’s clear that Rastelli is one of those people who, once baptized into the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, never looked back. A tireless self-starter, he’s been a cottage-industry publisher of both chapbooks and zines (his long-running Fish Piss has given many Montreal writers their first exposure), a grassroots entrepreneur (his Distroboto chain sells small artworks and books out of reclaimed cigarette machines), and organizer of the ever-expanding Expozine, the annual Montreal fair for zine publishers. Through all this he has remained an inveterate anarchist and pack rat, a tendency that came in very handy when it was suggested he write a novel.

“I went through literally over a thousand different files – text files, emails, journal entries, stuff from notepads – to make sure I didn’t miss anything interesting, whether it was an episode or just a good line,” he says. “Anything to make that era come alive. Even though what I kept barely amounted to 10% of what a novel needs to be, it was great to have that source material, written fresh in the voice that I had back then.”

The scenesters of A Fine Ending show a mix of political awareness and social isolation. The 1995 Referendum, a crucial event in the era described, hardly seems to impinge on the consciousness of these party-goers. Was this a conscious choice?

“That was a decision influenced by the desire to make the story universal. I felt the Referendum would have stuck out a bit too much. I do mention the (post) Referendum riot, which hardly anyone knows about. I think it was given a low profile in the media at the time to keep our dollar from plunging. The Ice Storm, on the other hand, tied in very well. At the time it was taken almost as a preview of how the millennium might play out. It was fascinating to see nature take over like that, to be this modern urban space but back in an 1850s stage in terms of infrastructure.”

Given Rastelli’s pedigree, some non-Montrealers may be surprised at how little francophone presence there is in A Fine Ending.

“There were parts, that I kind of regret having had to cut, that did deal more with francophone Montreal. But the fact is that our circle was overwhelmingly anglophone. I used to joke that it was impossible to meet anyone who was actually from Montreal. It was when the Plateau started becoming a melting pot of other Canadians. I can hardly count the number of people I know here from Halifax, Winnipeg, Victoria. In a way that serves the story well, because it keeps it more universal. It’s obviously very strongly tied to Montreal, but other cities and artists’ scenes aren’t terribly different – cheap rents, fairly typical cliques of people.”

While people who were there will have hours of fun trying to spot themselves and others among the fictionalized characters, Rastelli stresses that they are just that – characters.

“From the get-go it seemed obvious that if I was going to fictionalize some people, I’d have to do it with everyone. For me, during the process, it became seductive to mix up some real stuff with made-up stuff, or things that were hearsay at the time, to have the license to make things flow and have a consistent set of characters. Inasmuch as there are characters closely based on real people, including me (the narrator’s name is Louis), it was fun boiling things together, streamlining, culling. The few times where I let friends read certain passages based on incidents that they might have remembered, I was happy to see that the reaction was generally, ‘Wow…I’d almost totally forgotten about that, but that’s really how it was.’ Nobody seemed to have any problem with possibly being recognized. And if anybody does have any issues, the thing I would probably tell them is, ‘Well then, it’s up to you not to say anything about possibly being one of those characters.'”

A striking feature of the lifestyle shown in A Fine Ending is how these people treat their urban environment as, essentially, one big source of reclaimable life necessities. In Montreal in the ’90s it seems that it took only a little creativity and determination to live on next to nothing. Rastelli points out how the notion is far from dead.

“I was excited to read, in the months since I finished the book, about the term that’s been coined for people who do precisely that: the freegans. People who never pay for anything, including food. They go to restaurants and get table scraps, they raid bins, go to garage sales and sidewalk stalls. There are organizations of these people, especially in New York. They have swap meets, weekly dinners where everyone brings food that they’ve found for free. In a way that’s how we all lived back then and to some extent still do. I hardly know anyone who buys chairs or tables or couches. We have moving day still – now July 1. Nobody wanted to spend their hard-earned money on anything other than beer or music equipment or in my case publishing my little books. Part of it is just fun, like exploring abandoned buildings and seeing what people have left behind on moving day. It’s a whole discovery thing. It was one of the ways that many of us had of living on…what was welfare at the time? $346 a month? A hell of a lot of people lived on that and maybe a bit of busking or some other sundry activity.”

One of the most impressive qualities of A Fine Ending is its gradually growing undertow of melancholy. How much of this is a function of the historical setting as opposed to just generally knowing that all parties must eventually pack it in?

“It was probably an overhyped thing at the time – that fin de siècle ennui and also the Y2K fear. But there’s no doubt that we had that sense that all this had to come to an end, that we couldn’t go on living like this forever. One of the challenges of the book was to have the tone slowly change to reflect that. It was a mix of hope and resignation, I guess. And maybe a general feeling of being underwhelmed with the end of the 20th century. For people of my generation, 2000 was always the horizon, and now here it was, and where were the flying cars? Weren’t we supposed to have figured out how to take care of the planet by now? There were a lot of reasons to be disappointed.”

Every generation tends to tell the next one that theirs was the real scene. Rastelli is careful to avoid that kind of trap.

“You’ll hear that ‘good old days’ refrain every time a couple of clubs close,” says Rastelli, “or whenever new ones open or get too popular or ‘commercial.’ Sure it’s sad when something like that old loft scene fizzles out, but it wasn’t for bad reasons. We took things to the next level, established legitimate spaces like this place we’re in right now (Casa del Popolo), created jobs and hired friends. More and more people shacked up, got into long-term relationships, stopped going to the bars every night, got off welfare, got successful with their bands. I want to guard against getting too nostalgic about a time when everything was under the table and nobody was making any money. Sure there may be some romance to that, but the reality could be grim. Those weren’t the good old days, those were those days.”

Thankfully Rastelli has also resisted the kind of celebrity name dropping that could have reduced the whole setting and narrative to a staging ground for the ascension of a few stars. It’s a pitfall of which he was very much aware.

“It would have been easy to succumb to that. You know, ‘Oh, I remember when Rufus Wainwright was playing piano every Thursday at Café Sarajevo, and bursting into song at the patio of Miami Bar when he was working there.’ I didn’t name any actual names or performers because the real goal of the book was to capture the spirit of the time, not to exploit the fact that some people who are now famous were around.”

An entirely unexpected strand of A Fine Ending‘s narrative is provided by the cats of the Plateau, who form a sort of shadow society, sometimes beloved, sometimes treated horribly. One particular anecdote may make sensitive cat lovers queasy to say the least. Why the strong feline presence?

“The cats seemed like a way to address some things about the environment and what I see as our casual disregard for it. I found it interesting to highlight the neglect and taking for granted of things like cats and other animals, and the mountain, among these people you’d assume would have been, if not members of Greenpeace, at least sympathetic to environmental movements. It was also a good way to provide some relief from the sheer urban-ness of it all, to have the story reduced at one point to the narrator staring face to face with a sick kitten.” mRb

Ian McGillis is books columnist for the Montreal Gazette and author of the novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry. His memoir Higher Ground will be published by Biblioasis in 2017.

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