A Very Bold Leap
McClelland & Stewart
At the opening of the novel, the hero, Charles Thibodeau, sets out to write the great Montreal novel. At the tender age of 18, in his three-room apartment on Rachel Street, he bangs away on his old typewriter with his dog Boff at his feet. What emerges from this labour of youthful love is a 217-page manuscript titled A Dark Night. After sending the manuscript off to Les Éditions Courtelongues, and hearing nothing for months, Charles barges into the office of the literary editor Jean-Philippe L’Archevêque to demand a verdict. The editor concedes that Charles has talent but tells him that one has to live before creating the kind of novel that garners the acclaim that the young writer hungers for.
And live he does. After one final failed attempt at literary fame – Charles pays a vanity press to publish his novel – he seeks ways to earn a living by means other than his pen. He becomes a dog barker for the City of Verdun, canvassing the streets at night, enticing unlicensed dogs to answer his barking calls. This episode comes to an end when his supervisor catches him in the bed of a certain Aglaé Mayrand, the owner of a small, unlicensed, and cantankerous dog.
Perhaps, in the boldness stakes, Charles’s apprenticeship with the Church of the Holy Apostles of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and his ensuing position as the personal assistant of the slimy Pastor Raphaël Grandbois takes the prize. This adventure culminates in an unexpected kidnapping – following an unwelcome invitation to embrace the redemptive power of orgiastic sex – and the young hero’s valiant escape from his captors.
Beauchemin’s commentary, via Charles’s adventures, on the corruption of the Church reflects a desire to enrich the narrative with snapshots of Quebec’s social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. There are references to Félix Leclerc, Gaston Miron, and Denise Filiatrault; to Bourassa, Trudeau, Parizeau, and Lévesque; to Bill 101 and the language laws which so unsettled relations between the Quebec Anglophones and the pure laine Francophones in the ’80s. The strong language in some of the political passages – words like “oppression” and “domination” – might arouse a frown of discomfort from readers who don’t share the separatist views expressed in the novel.
The author’s attempt to weave the landscape of Quebec society into the narrative is sometimes clunky, lacking the dexterity of some of his previous work. Nonetheless, A Very Bold Leap is an exciting and satisfying read. The novel displays moments of intense humanity, as during the tragic death of Boff in the arms of his master, or in the emotional turmoil unleashed when Charles is betrayed by those closest to him. As the characters experience the highs and lows of life, the narrator shares with us wonderfully nuanced insights that only one who has lived boldly can formulate with such ease.
The novel ends on a high note – literally. Charles climbs to the top of the clock tower of UQAM to hang a banner, which proclaims: CHARLES WILL MAKE IT . . . EVEN WITHOUT A DEGREE! Conceivably, the authentic living he has experienced will give him the insight necessary to write the novel that will honour his city in all of its glory. mRb