I chose this book initially because it was the longest novel in my growing NCL collection.
The Alley Cat begins with a good deed. A man walking along a Montreal street is struck in the head by a metal letter that fell from a sign. Florent Boissonneult, a twenty-something passerby, phones for help and waits with the injured man until emergency services arrive, before departing for work. Although the man dies, Florent receives messages from a rich eccentric who saw the act and who claims he wants to help Florent achieve his dream of owning a restaurant since he knows Florent to be pure of heart.
The Alley Cat is a difficult book to review because despite my overall enjoyment of the (sometimes) dark comedy, I found myself disappointed. Yves Beauchemin’s book is often described as “Dickensian,” which is most noticeable in its characters. The characters are larger than life, and embody certain traits and archetypes. Like the Macawbers or Uriah Heap, Beauchemin’s novel has an obscurantist foreigner of uncertain extraction, Ange-Albert the laid-back couch-surfer, or Picquot, the hot-headed French chef with a heart of gold. The Alley Cat is populated with interesting and unique characters which do bring to mind Dickens. I once read Dickens characters described as “caricatures” because of their exaggerated personalities and attributes, although I felt that a touch uncharitable. Those found in The Alley Cat do possess an exaggerated but engaging characterization however. A favourite character in the novel is Florent’s cousin, a priest who spends all day reading and who attempts throughout the book to find a stove into which Gogol threw a hitherto lost work, which he hopes to recover. The chief strength of The Alley Cat is its characters, although their wasted potential relates to some of its greatest flaws.
The novel made a bad first impression from which it never escaped. Despite beginning with Florent cast in the role of good Samaritan, in the first couple chapters he supposes that his mysterious benefactor must be “some old fag”, he cheats on his wife on a whim, and casually uses the n-word. By themselves, these facts do not present a problem, even to the semi-comedic tone the book intends. However, they are endemic to a larger issue I had with the book: I did not find Florent sympathetic. This is important because much of the book depends on the reader cheering Florent to get back at those who swindled him, and sympathizing with his indignation. There were points at which I was sympathetic with Florent and his circumstances—particularly when his malefactor refused to let him move on with his life—but I had to struggle to cheer for him. To wit, my complaint is not that The Alley Cat contains certain slurs, but that it puts them on the tongue of someone we are supposed to root for and seems to believe this makes him a relatable every-man.
Florent is at once the dullest and least likable in a cast of interesting personalities. His dullness actually fits with the characterization of Beauchemin’s works as Dickensian in style; David Copperfield is among the least interesting characters in David Copperfield because of his role as reader (and author) surrogate. However, David is a good person, whose misfortunes are either just that, misfortunes, or mistakes made from ignorance, not malice. Despite the Dickensian nature of the characters in The Alley Cat, the novel also fails to live up to the aspect of Dickensian format I enjoy most. The recurrence of characters and their plot-lines is important in Dickens; a character introduced early in a novel will likely reappear later and impact the plot in some relevant way. Rarely does Dickens set something up which ultimately has no payoff. Take Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, who appears three times in the novel. First, she appears as a grotesque due to her deformity, then on her second appearance she displays hidden depths, and finally in the end she takes on a heroic role. Even Mr. Mell, the kindly but impoverished school teacher fired in the childhood portion of the same novel reappears in the final moments of David Copperfield. Although Mr. Mell has little impact on the main plot after his early departure, the reader is nevertheless rewarded for following and remembering his plot.
Most of the characters in The Alley Cat do not have a payoff. Now, in a novel in the style of Canadian social realism this would be fine. In real life people come and go with more or less impact on our lives. In a novel like Waste Heritage or I Do Remember the Fall this same feature takes on a different meaning because they are different kinds of stories. In a Dickensian novel the lack of payoff leaves a reader feeling cheated. Take my favourite character, the bookish priest whose subplot involves retrieving the wood stove thought to contain the remnants of a lost work of Gogol. The subplot ends in the most predictable and bland way possible. The stove arrives, and while fragments of the work are inside it, they are too fragile to move. The priest character adds nothing else to the plot, aside from attracting Florent’s scorn for the crime of being too nice. At one point he almost becomes useful by attempting to decipher a cryptic book written by the novel’s villain. Ultimately he fails, the code-book goes undeciphered, and that specific plot cul-de-sac goes nowhere.
At one point in the novel I suspected that the priest might decipher the book and provide Florent with some clue which would help him revenge himself upon his malefactors. Yet the solution Florent comes up with is all his own. It is also a solution he could have come up with without at least a third of the book having to occur. The plan Florent executes to sabotage his enemy’s eatery is one he could have enacted just as well without sojourning for hundreds of pages to Florida, and Quebec’s eastern townships on some glorified side-quests. Since his experiences leading up to his revenge contribute virtually nothing to its execution, the a reader is left wondering why they were taken on that journey in the first place. The final showdown with the novel’s primary antagonist is woefully anticlimactic, resolved not by Florent’s efforts or clever scheming, but by an implausibly grievous injury inflicted by the book’s eponymous feline. I enjoyed the journey that is this novel! My disappointment is that the journey adds little to the experience of the conclusion.
Those are my misgivings with The Alley Cat, a novel I enjoyed overall, despite the bad aftertaste. A more common criticism of the book is something else I noticed: the only significant non-francophone characters in the novel are villainous. The primary villain of the piece is an eastern-European immigrant of uncertain extraction. A disillusioned ally of the villain claims late in the novel that this character is in fact native to Canada, but the truth of this claim is left ambiguous, like most everything about the villain. The secondary villain is an anglophone Quebecker, in fact the only one to appear. I’ll admit that this did not bother me awfully much. The francophone characters which populate the rest of the novel run the full gamut of morality, so it is not as though francophones are portrayed as unambiguously good and non-francophones as evil.
I raise this point because, when I initially completed the book a month ago I happened across Bob Coleman’s 1987 review for The New York Times. Coleman, bizarrely, I think, believed Beauchemin has it out for Americans specifically. His evidence for this claim is the fact that the main villains are non-francophones, and that Floridians depicted in The Alley Cat are unlikeable. The latter is debatable, as plenty of the francophone Quebeckers depicted in the novel are equally peculiar and unsympathetic. The former struck me as a singularly bizarre claim given that the allophones in question were not even Americans. Judith Freeman of the LA Times, while complaining similarly to me that there is a weird mean streak in the novel, concurs with Coleman that Americans get the worst of it in the novel. Methinks they are in a hurry to tilt at windmills.
Next time: after two adventures in Montreal, a change of scenery is in order. Perhaps a journey our west?