Monday, March 22, 2010

20. The Stringer by F. F. Langan

I picked this one up at Chainon, our local thrift store (affiliated with a women's shelter) despite my personal embargo on buying new books until I get my on-deck shelf whittled down to a reasonable size. I bought it because it was set in 1960's Montreal and had an energetic writing style in the first few pages I read. Though it is not a great book, my instinct to pick it up was correct as it had the kind of information I was looking for. It's not a terrible book either and I had no trouble making it through to the end.

It's the story of Jack Devlin, an ambitious and self-centered young anglo journalist in Montreal working for CBC television (though the network is not named) and freelancing for Time Canada. Thanks to a bit of luck and a pretty aggressive journalistic instinct, he manages to get ahead of the curve on a series of interlocking stories involving separatist bombings and corruption and organized crime among the longshoreman's union. He is also constantly drinking and fucking, going to a series of different bars and restaurants throughout the day and juggling up to 4 different women. The bit of luck is that he wakes up to a bomb going off in the mailbox of the house of a wealthy friend of his where he has ended up after a night of partying. He happens to be the first on the scene and sees the dead body of an innocent french-canadian servant who was going to mail a letter in the booby-trapped mailbox. One clue leads to another and soon Devlin has leads on the head of the longshoreman's union (who may be funding the revolutionaries) and connections into MPs offices where the plan to use the War Measures Act in Quebec is brewing. He also is unknowingly being made a patsy of by the organized crime unit of the Montreal Police, who use his articles as bait to get criminals to come out of the woodwork.

The stringer is very baldly structured. Everything is told very deliberately and the point of view keeps changing, sometimes so quickly you aren't sure whose it is for a sentence or two. I'm not a big proponent of the "show, don't tell" dogma of storytelling, but here the telling is so blatant that the book lacks any elegance or flow. However, it keeps moving forward and doesn't try to get too tricky (well, actually it does, with a couple of unnecessary foreshadowings and false suspense, but they are so brief and badly done that you blow right by them), so that none of this is really annoying. And on the positive side, the stuff he does tell is really interesting. Clearly, Langan lived the world of crazy '60s Montreal journalism and he shares it all with the reader. I truly appreciated that, as it not only does a great job of capturing that time and place, it also (and I suspect this was not deliberate) catches a very specific perspective: that of the ignorant anglo right at the end of his time in power in Montreal.

It's tricky to explain this, because this book is quite cynical and really doesn't paint anybody in a good light. He doesn't try to defend or pull any punches about Jack's ignorance about French-Canadian culture. However, the book itself really does a terrible job with the depiction of the french-canadians. The revolutionary is particularily two-dimensional and annoying. If you didn't know anything about the situation (or were an anglo who already had certain biases about it), this book would make you think that the people behind the Quiet Revolution were just a bunch of stupid, dreamy upper-middle class intellectual university students. It ignores entirely the rich heritage of Quebec, of the truly shitty labour conditions for francophones of all class levels and the importance of language. For Langan, it seems that the revoluion is the aforementioned bourgeoisie and a bunch of corrupt longshoreman who are already getting paid triple-time.

And this reflects the attitude of a lot of anglo montrealers from that period. It's sort of understandable, as they were the losers in the whole affair. But it's not so good to see it deeply embedded in a book that was written in 2000. It is very interesting to read about it from the perspective of one who was there. What is also good is the portrayal of the way the news media worked back then (with television copying news stories from the newspapers!) and the general social life. Great side characters, including a gay British antique dealer who suddenly turns out to be a badass in the final scene, taking out a couple of longshoreman with a collectible brass-knuckle knife and a shovel (turns out he was in the army in Malaya; love that kidn of shit, really left me with a good feeling about the book at the end).

Montreal did seem pretty wild back then. And there is tons of sex in this book. Very explicit, too. I'm not really sure what Langan was going for when he decided to get all explicit. It's weird. He throws in a sex scene wherever he can, even side characters getting up in the morning, suddenly turn their wife over on her stomach, tuck a pillow under her and enter her from behind, all while mentioning that she still got him as hot as ever after 20 years of marriage. Hey, I don't mind, but what is the goal? It doesn't seem to fit in to the demographic that this book was aiming for.

So a weird little find, well worth the read, with some criticizable flaws that did nothing to lessen my enjoyment of it.

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