Brett Josef Grubisic Reviews New Novels from Michael Blouin and Stéphane Larue for EVENT 49/1
Brett Josef Grubisic Reviews:
Michael Blouin, Skin House, Anvil Press, 2019
Stéphane Larue, Trans. Pablo Strauss, The Dishwasher, Biblioasis, 2019
Benders, bloodshot eyes, illicit temptations, impulse control issues, consequential bad decisions, intermittent pangs of remorse: the wintry, darkly atmospheric pages of Michael Blouin’s Skin House and Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher are awash in special blends of misery resulting from the accumulation of elements like these—or collisions among them.
Larue’s elder by some 23 years, Blouin writes in a distinctly jaded, if not outright cynical, register in Skin House. If Larue relates a coming-of-age tale whose central trajectory suggests a deepening struggle with addiction that is likely to lead to debt, criminality and premature death, Blouin’s novel—which includes such chapter titles as ‘Lowered Expectations’ and ‘Grinding Ahead Ever More Quickly Toward Our Own Demise’—dwells on two guys for whom any youthful potential has long ago been supplanted by the burden of unfulfilled potential, dead-end employment, cirrhotic livers, assorted wounds and scars, and thick-skinned attitudes acquired in tandem with dispiriting experiences.
A grocery-store clerk with a ‘rye and vodka hobby’ in an unpromising one-bar, no-bus town located in central Quebec, the narrator of Blouin’s darkly comic novel is less at a crossroads than nearing the end of a long period of decline. As he summarizes: ‘Wife gone. Son dead. Father dying. I’m using an empty can of Beefaroni for an ashtray. That doesn’t seem like a good thing, does it? Or maybe it’s all right. Is it all right? It’s all right. It’ll be all right.’
Inspired by Charles Bukowski and fuelled by a viewpoint that ranges from hopeless to not-entirely-hopeless, the narrator’s philosophizing anchors the novel’s 300 pages: ‘I’m a reasonable man about things. I just don’t give a shit’; ‘Life goes down, not up’; ‘If I were going to commit suicide I wouldn’t get it right. I know this about myself now. It’s not that I get everything wrong. I get the big things wrong.’
An aspiring writer (Skin House purports to be his own book), the narrator promises further meditations of the same. Envisioning Skin House Two, he announces its basic premise: ‘It’ll be 31 flavours of fuck the fuck off.’ The gruff masculine posturing and overall jaded outlook are familiar from decades of tough-guy films and novels; Blouin isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here. And the jaded loser figure—hurt by life’s misfortunes—likewise registers as a type, rather than an individual whose psychological dimensions an author is seeking to explore in depth.
Plot-wise, Skin House accounts for the narrator’s time—generally: mornings hungover and taking stock, and days at work with his best and seemingly only friend Gerry (a butcher as grizzled as his co-worker and a smidge more cynical); those are followed by evening hours at Zamboni’s, the town’s establishment for serious drinking. Aside from that routine, the narrator visits Otis, his crusty father (‘Rather eat the ass end out of a dead owl,’ Otis says to the nurse delivering his meal), who recollects old romances and numerous past mistakes.
Other plot strands involve a new romance for the narrator (his father’s nurse, no less), an armed robbery with Gerry of their own place of employment, and, naturally, a short road trip, replete with misadventures.
Amusingly, Blouin’s narrator is writing fiction readers will recognize as having roots in crime fiction (and film) populated by femmes fatales and hard-boiled private eyes. To him, though, the cynicism and hangovers are just how he’s spending another discontented winter. In an era of sensitivity to pronoun use, harmful language, toxic masculinity and privilege, Blouin’s protagonist and his buddy are virtual dinosaurs. They’re distasteful. Readers may agree: If sexist barflies with advanced degrees in defensive hetero-masculine postures are appealing, then Blouin’s novel makes for an attractive choice.
For his intriguing first book (published as La plongeur in 2016), Larue opens with a short prologue. In it, the novel’s seemingly contented protagonist runs into a former colleague, someone he hasn’t seen in years. The momentous, worrisome and apparently disastrous events that begin right after—for the next 42 chapters—represent the tail-end of a troubling adolescent phase the reader knows the protagonist will successfully navigate.
It’s an interesting strategy on Larue’s part. Instead of leading readers to wonder whether the narrator’s hitting rock bottom (the consequence of an addiction to bar video gambling machines and mounting debt) will lead to his demise, we wonder how the narrator (unnamed like Blouin’s) escapes the messes his addiction creates.
In fact, we follow his rapid descent confident that the narrator will emerge from it—not unscathed, certainly, but at least alive and capable of resuming a life where gainful employment and stable relationships are a given.
Larue’s Bildungsroman is cleverly constructed, balancing personal development with a kind of underworld journey. Failing in his graphic design program in Montreal, spiralling out of control in diverse ways, and convinced that he alone can either control or overcome his appetite for video gambling, he manages only to alienate friends and family while getting further entangled.
During a bleak Christmas when the narrator is feeling nothing, his adult cousin, Malik, discovers his mismanagement of life. A kindhearted and upright watchdog who implores the narrator to come clean and seek help, Malik strong-arms the narrator into agreeing to behave better, which results in his taking a job at La Trattoria.
Having never worked in a restaurant, he’s assigned to the kitchen, and to the dish pit, which in Larue’s portrait is a special kind of hell. A supposed fix for what ails the narrator (hard work, a steady job, responsibilities, a fixed routine, etc.), the restaurant and its personalities instead supply him with more bad options from which to choose.
Larue’s story excels when set at La Trattoria, as the gritty, behind-the-scenes depictions are a delightful contrast to the restaurant’s chic appearance. The hellish atmosphere of the kitchen (I swear Larue has read some Dante) and its combative personalities conjure a kind of martial arena: In the battlefield that is each and every shift, a disaster will inevitably occur.
The narrator soon meets Bébert, possessing the ‘face of a cartoon alcoholic punk,’ tremendous reserves of anger, a vast inventory of curse words and a glutton’s appetite (for vengeance and intoxicants instead of food); he’s a pit bull who looks out for the narrator while he navigates the world of the restaurant’s kitchen staff, management and front of house. The restaurant represents an adult world that’s distinct from the narrator’s family and the student culture he knows. But both naive and prone to shortcuts (that are ultimately anything but), he quickly gets mixed up in schemes, quarrels, combative personalities and interpersonal vendettas—all while learning the (grease-smeared) ropes of kitchen work.
For readers, La Trattoria’s criminality and intrigue are fascinating, but for the narrator they’re not close to what the doctor (well, Malik) ordered. The restaurant’s culture provides him with bad habits to latch on to, iffy prospects to solve his money issues, and a veritable rogue’s gallery of manipulative guys with ulterior motives. In no time he’s running errands that promise quick money along with gunfire and real threats of physical harm.
To Larue’s credit, in 400 pages he masters the complex, broadly educational story of a narrator ‘too green to know better’ to such a degree that it’s as much a page-turner as a riveting coming-of-age narrative: Portrait of the Night Shift Restaurant Worker as a Young Gambling Addict.
—Brett Josef Grubisic