Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book 17 – A Fine Ending

By Louis Rastelli

I remember seeing copies of Rastelli’s book on display a couple of years ago at Expozine, the annual small press/comic/zine fair held in a church basement near where we live. I wasn’t curious enough to shell out the 13 bucks for it back then, but I sure didn’t hesitate when I saw it going for $2 at my fave thrift store Chainon. I learned later that Rastelli actually co-founded Expozine, and he was also involved in launching Distroboto, the network of converted cigarette vending machines that sell artwork, comics and other neat stuff all over the city. So Rastelli is a bit of a fixture in the local arts community, the kind of all-encompassing guy who’s dabbled in a little bit of everything. A Fine Ending is his first novel, which is a fictionalized account of his experience living in the Plateau as a struggling young musician.

I was sort of curious about this book because it takes place in and around Montreal’s Plateau as the 1990’s were drawing to an end. I remember visiting Montreal in the summer of 1991 as a fresh-faced high school grad. The Anglos were getting the hell out of dodge, “Á louer” signs were everywhere and it was possible rent a sweet apartment for $200 a month or less. This was back when the Plateau was still considered a working class neighbourhood and beer n’ weed were sold openly at Parc Mont-Royal during the Sunday tam-tam. It was also the best time for non-French speaking students, artists and musician to be living in Montreal, as you could live pretty well on next to nothing since there weren’t a lot of quality jobs going around.

But I also had my trepidations embarking on this novel, as it’s also been described as “a timeless portrait of the spirit of bohemia” and “a warm-hearted account of an artistic community’s defining years.” Ugh. Thankfully, A Fine Ending wasn’t as annoying as the blurbs made it out to be and turned out to be a very unassuming account of the life of a thoughtful, happy-go-lucky twenty-something guy. Rastelli did do a good job in capturing the vibe of that time and his novel is punctuated with interesting descriptions of old landmarks and establishments. Highlights include a first-person account of the ice storm that hit the city in winter of 1998 and the discovery of an abandoned warehouse called the Darling Foundry and the subsequent raiding of its contents.

The parts that most affected me most, unsurprisingly, were the ones about the cats. Cats appear throughout the novel as a kind of litmus test of variable morality and hypocritical values that can be so infuriating in certain people. Rastelli obviously loves kitties and he writes about looking after his friend’s cats while they’re away on tour or taking his cat Bindy for autumn walks in the park. But he also depicts some heartbreaking passages about cats dying needlessly, not due to any blatant cruelty, but from neglect and indifference from self-absorbed twenty-somethings and drug-addicted roommates. You have a feeling those horrible stories were probably all too true.

My only real complaint is the lack of any discernible style in Rastelli's writing, which has a straightforward expository manner but comes across as rather bland. Though the tone is colloquial, there is little in the way of certain turns of phrases that marks a novel with a distinctive voice. Perhaps this was done consciously, to make the story more universal, or perhaps this has something to do with Rastelli being a fully bilingual Montreal native. Here’s a sample:

“I’d recently grilled my own parents for stories from their past, and told Rick about how much more clearly I could imagine the old city from these first-hand stories than I could when reading about it in books. They explained how, in the days when there were still more horses than cars, every few blocks, on the main streets, there would be cisterns full of water for the horses to drink from. When my dad tried to get my mom to remember a particularly large cistern on the corner of Sherbrooke and St. Laurent, I was able to picture the scene perfectly – all these horse-drawn carriages would have been idling right where that big gas station now sits. “

It's an interesting passage about Montreal's past but it also feels like reading a journal entry from an educated European who writes in perfect English, but English isn’t his first language. Which is kind of ironic, considering that Rastelli consciously omitted any Francophone presence, even going so far as to not mentioning the 1995 referendum. Rastelli explains:

“…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."

A Fine Ending was enjoyable, but it’d probably only interest those who are curious to get a feel for what the Montreal scene was like in the 90’s or for those who were actually there and would like to rekindle a bit of nostalgia.

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