Personal thoughts on fictional settings and a chance to out some Canadians
Thanks to my recent reading of two novels and a short story by John McFetridge, I am now prepared to ask myself both those questions. I wrote last week about McFetridge's creation of Toronto as a great city of the imagination in his novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. His short story "Barbotte" does something similar for Montreal. So does his first book, Dirty Sweet, though that novel is set for the most part in Toronto.
I am around McFetridge's age and, like him, I grew up in Montreal. Like many of our generation, he eventually decamped and wound up in Toronto. I left for the United States instead, but enough members of my family took off for Toronto that I feel a part of that phenomenon. And if I hadn't so felt already, I would have the first time I sampled credible versions of the best bagels in the world – Montreal-style bagels – in Toronto. And please don't make the ludicrous argument that New York bagels are better.
I suggest that McFetridge's background may account for an undertone of wistfulness in both of his highly entertaining crime books and for his unusual accomplishment in creating a body of work whose setting is not just two cities but the very process of movement from one to the other.
The protagonist's reminiscences in Dirty Sweet naturally include an old girlfriend. But they also include many rock bands, local and international, popular in the Montreal of McFetridge's youth and mine. I even knew the keyboard player for one of the bands cited as having played raucous motorcycle-gang parties.
This protagonist, Vince, has wound up in Toronto, making his way in the criminal world, after a wandering life that has taken him from Montreal's suburbs through the Alberta oil boom to prison to the new Toronto, where there is real money to be made for the man (or woman) willing to fight for it. It's not too much to suggest that he is a personification of English Canada's history from the 1970s until now.
In Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the nostalgia has hardened into a wry and funny realism. The leader of a motorcycle gang remarks that the time has come to move the gang's head offices from Montreal to Toronto. This is an amusing example of the corporate mentality that finds its highest Canadian personification in Toronto. It is especially, and perhaps ruefully, so for those who know that many Canadian businesses of a more legitimate type similarly pulled up stakes and headed for Toronto after the separatist Parti Quebecois came to power in Quebec in 1976.
Both the novels are filled with violence, laughs and characters who are likable despite the violence they get up to. The novels are superb entertainment, in other words, offering credible takes on how crime works now in a rich, sprawling, shifting city just trying to figure out what to do with its money. But – and I hope this scares no one off – they're also moving documents of a major social shift. And, so help me, that combination of the personal, the social and the entertaining makes McFetridge a major author.
And now, let's play Out the Canadians. The keeper of this site is Canadian, though he no longer lives in Canada. So are are the keepers of a number of other popular crime-fiction sites. How many can you name?
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
Canadian crime fiction