The loser's advocate

One Day Even Trevi will Crumble

By Joel Yanofsky

Published on April 1, 2003

One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble
Neale Mcdevitt

Exile Editions
$22.95
paper
165pp
1-55096-554-9

If you’ve spent any time in NDG, particularly the less gentrified part
south of Monkland Village commonly nicknamed “No Damn Good,” you’ve probably
seen Neale McDevitt around. He’s a denizen, a die-hard – what he’d call
“a lifer.”

The 40-year-old McDevitt has lived in a four-block radius of Sherbrooke
Street his entire life. So it’s not unusual that people should stop and
say hello at the neighbourhood diner where he’s having lunch. The difference
now is that they are not just stopping to chat. They’re stopping to congratulate
McDevitt on One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble, his debut collection
of short stories. The recognition makes him beam like a proud but somewhat
disbelieving papa. (By the way, he is a new papa; his daughter, Charlotte,
was born in November, on the same day his first author’s copy of the book
arrived.)

He should be proud, too. His stories, frequently about bums and hookers
and barflies or just characters down on their luck, are distinguished by
a tough and tender brand of lyricism, McDevitt’s unique mix of poetry and
edginess. To illustrate, he recites one of his favourite lines from one
of his favourite stories – “The Lighthouse Keeper,” about mismatched lovers
– like it’s a poem. And the thing is, it sort of it: “Fuck Van Gogh and
his petty gestures. Try having your heart cut out, you Dutch prick.”

Charles Bukowski is the writer you can’t help thinking of when you read
One Day Even Trevi will Crumble. Bukowski with muscles, that is.
Short and broad-shouldered, McDevitt looks like a weightlifter, which is,
coincidentally, what he used to be. For most of the 1980s he was a member
of the Canadian national weightlifting team, winning the Pan-Am Championship
in 1985 and competing in the Commonwealth Games a year later. He figures
he is the only writer around who can clean and jerk 408 pounds. (Margaret
Atwood, are you listening?)

As for Bukowski’s influence, McDevitt not only acknowledges it, he can’t
wait to own up to it. “It sounds corny but reading Bukowski was a real
ephiphany. That wasn’t long ago either, five years or so. I saw the movie
Barfly and loved it, but didn’t know who it was about. Then I picked
up a collection of stories called The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.
That’s not the day my voice was born, but it was the day I realized that
you can write in an alternative way, really gritty but beautiful too.”

Mordecai Richler used to say that it’s a writer’s job to be the “loser’s
advocate,” but Richler had as much contempt for the losers as he did for
the high and mighty. McDevitt, to his credit, puts his heart where his
prose is.

Unlike his characters, though, he’s not from the wrong side of the tracks.
He grew up firmly middle class, the son of Bob McDevitt, a longtime TV
sportscaster. But he also grew up hanging out in gyms and bars – places
where storytelling, fuelled by testosterone and alcohol, is practically
a competitive sport. You learn quickly not to judge people on who they
are but instead on how entertaining they can be. Says McDevitt, “Someone
can be a bum and smell bad and you may not want to be around him for long,
but he can still tell a funny story.”

Not surprisingly, McDevitt’s stories are full of people you don’t see
very often and aren’t always likely to look in the eye when you do. In
“Bread Crumbs and Band Saws,” a sheet metal worker, disappearing one small
body part at a time, becomes a tragic hero. In “Putty in the Locks,” a
woman survives a traumatic childhood to become a responsible and loving
mother. In “Salt,” a disillusioned undertaker learns a lesson about love
and loyalty from the daughter of one of his clients.

The first half of the book, titled “The McVie Chronicles,” is a series
of stories linked by the eponymous narrator, a borderline lush and full-blown
romantic fool. It’s in McVie’s opening story, “Notre-Dame-de-Grâce,”
that the tone is set for the collection. In this cul-de-sac world, you
hope for the best and expect the worst. Most of all, you hunker down:

When we are shit-lucky enough to turn up love, or at least some
unsuspecting soul who accepts us for being the sedentary, dreamless creatures
we are, we hang on dangerously tight like the drowning man pulling down
on his saviour
.”

McVie is not McDevitt, not exactly – “He’s more bitter and burned out
than I am,” the writer says – but the two, alter ego and author, are both
suckers for love’s sky-high highs and low-down lows: “In my stories, it
can work either way. You can start way down here and be taken up, usually
by love. But it’s always with the knowledge that you will crash, that love
will fail somehow. There will be sadness ultimately in that love.”

McDevitt employs tall tales, urban legends, even Greek myths to make
the point. The image of Icarus flying too close to the sun, for example,
runs through the collection, as both dire warning and impossible dream.

“That is my big thing,” McDevitt admits. “We all have our moments of
grace and we all have our falls. We can see it in the lives of Mario Lemieux
os someone like that. But I won’t see yours and you won’t see mine. And
all those people on the 105 Sherbrooke bus, I won’t even know that they
have that moment of grace, but they do.”

These are high-flying days for McDevitt, what with the baby and the
book. Both were happy accidents, though the book took longer to appear.
Even so, the path to publication was much smoother than McDevitt ever imagined.
It started when one of his stories, “Honey-Tongued Hooker,” about a young
prostitute and her reluctant john, won the CBC/QWF Short Story competition
in 2000. That was also when one of the competition’s judges, Newfoundland
writer Kenneth Harvey, suggested McDevitt send the story to Barry Callaghan
at Exile magazine. Harvey also suggested that if McDevitt had a
manuscript he should mention it to Callaghan. A couple of months later
the story was accepted and a request was made to see McDevitt’s book. It
was out a year later from Exile Editions.

McDevitt is presently trying to get back to the novel he wa writing
about McVie before he raided it for the first part of One Day Even Trevi
Will Crumble
. He’s also toying with the idea of writing a memoir of
his wrestling days. And he’s enjoying fatherhood. His only real concern
is that things may be going too well. “When I’m happy I’m fat in both body
and soul. And the muse goes away. I need the blues to write.”

He’s also not hanging out at bars very much. He’s drinking less and
sleeping less. “Suddenly, with the baby, I’m Mister Responsible. I guess
I’m not Charles Bukowski anymore.” mRb

Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.

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