On The Road Again

Necessary Betrayals

By Noel Rieder

Published on October 1, 2002

Necessary Betrayals
Guillaume Vigneault

Douglas & McIntyre
$22.95
paper
188pp
1-55054-956-1

For a while in the ’80s everyone was talking about Generation X. Surely you recall: they were brooding, materialistic slackers who’d one day (about now actually) sink the economy with their apathy and annoying Zen philosophy.

Now that Gen-Xers are blended into the general wash of adulthood, the emergence of raving, ecstasy-addled Gen-Y is what’s terrifying finance ministers. These days the only people paying attention to Gen-Xers are Gen-Xers like Guillaume Vigneault.

If the name is familiar it’s because Guillaume’s father is famous poet and songwriter Gilles Vigneault. Apples don’t usually fall far from the tree, but they can roll a bit. Guillaume has chosen prose over poetry, but his second novel, Necessary Betrayals, a book about disaffected thirty-somethings, establishes him as a fine talent in his own right.

Necessary Betrayals follows its hero Jack down the chasm of mid-life terror. Jack’s situation is undeniably grim. His marriage is over and he’s unable to muster the motivation to do anything but drink. In rough shape and unemployed, he’s easily talked into a road trip by his unhinged ex-brother-in-law, Tristan.

The pair load into a car and motor south into the fires of the Moronic Inferno (cf Martin Amis). Their trip through the States is as aimless as they are, and there are issues between the two friends that aren’t helped by all the drinking. Jack is a morose armchair philosopher, while boisterous Tristan has always lived life thoughtlessly, quenching his spiritual fires with booze, sex and fistfights.

It’s probably a good thing, then, that they run into Nuna. The sultry Spanish grad student has a piercing gaze and a foil-like wit, and since she’s unemployed and out of school, the men easily talk her into joining them on their cross-country booze binge.

Vigneault’s book is a nod to Kerouac’s legendary On the Road, but it’s not concerned with discovering some vagabond nirvana on a line of highway. There are no such illusions in Necessary Betrayals. Its characters are far more interested in leaving their pasts behind than in finding a feathery enlightenment.

But everyone knows love triangles are time bombs, and they certainly don’t travel well. Tristan and Nuna begin sleeping together, which makes Jack that much more conscious of the lack of love in his own life. Soon the three have gone their separate ways, leaving behind a sharp tangle of disappointment and crushed feelings. Jack’s reaction is simply to keep on going – to screw everything and live down to his last dollar. He heads to Louisiana, hoping that he will find oblivion in the bizarre backwaters of New Orleans, a city “you love like an ugly dog.”

Necessary Betrayals is written with an elegant razor-sharp language that rides over the page like the road trip it describes. Blessed with a young poet’s eye, but tempered by an older writer’s restraint, Vigneault entertainly portrays the debauchery and drifting scenery of his novel.

But the scenery must eventually stop drifting, and the debauchery can’t go on forever. Jack finds a surrogate family in the home of the black restaurant owner he ends up washing dishes for in New Orleans. There, a witness to their stoicism in the face of crushing adversity, he manages to regain the courage to confront life again.

Vigneault’s second novel doesn’t just deserve to be read for its entertainment value. The old existential questions it raises are ones that still deserve to be considered: why should we bother in building a career? What value are personal relationships, and is there any meaning at the bottom of it all? Vigneault offers some intriguing answers.

Noel Rieder talks with Guillaume Vigneault.

NR: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but are the pressures on a writer different if is father is a famous poet and songwriter?

GV: No, I don’t feel that there’s any extra pressure. But then I also know there are different sorts of expectations for me. I think that, probably, if I’d failed some people would have enjoyed beating up on me because of who my father is, while if I succed it’s almost expected. It’s usually something I try not to think about, though.

NR: Was there an artistic atmosphere in your home when you were growing up that somehow made the choice to become a writer an easier or a more obvious one?

GV: Well, there were always a lot of books around the house, so books were never exotic objects. But my parents were always accepting of whatever we wanted to do. I could have become a lawyer and they would have been just as happy. Actually, it probably would have been more useful having a lawyer in the family that has a well-known writer in it. (laughs)

NR: Why would you decide to make a love triangle the centre of your novel? Did you feel it would reveal your characters in a special way?

GV: Yes that’s what I was hoping would happen. Love and friendship are at the basis of everything we do, and the turmoil that can arise from them sheds a lot of light on who we are and what kind of people we are. At the same time I was afraid that, as characters, Jack and Tristan might not have much to say to each other (without a third party). They’re both very different and quite stubborn, so Nuna was meant to act as a kind of bridge between them. She forces them to interact. In the end, though, she also becomes a wall between them.

NR: Jack is a very solitary character; in many ways a very serious and self-controlled type of person, while his friend Tristan seems to live more dangerously and spontaneously. Is Jack’s breakdown partly the result of him trying to control his life?

GV: You know, there’s an old fable in French about a water lily and an old oak tree. One day the oak tree looks down at the lily and says, “Look at you, you’re so weak, anything can snap you.” But then one day, when a big windstorm comes, the lily bends with it and the oak is torn up from the ground. Jack is someone who is great when there’s no wind, but he doesn’t know how to react when a storm comes. mRb

Noel Rieder is a Montreal writer.

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