By Basil Papademos
It was the worst of times and it was the best of times: Montreal, 1989. For Johnny, a drug merchant and bisexual prostitute, it represents “one of the last big Western cities where you can have a life of tarnished opulence without needing some idiotic job.” Like a bad habit, Montreal wraps Johnny “in the low thrum of her busted avenues, in the musky smell of her filthy waters. She gets me excited with her vulgar tongue and sultry decay.”
It is, in other words, Montreal’s “Golden Age.”
Decadence has its attractions, and Basil Papademos, a former resident of Montreal who now lives in Thailand (from whence we might anticipate further horrors) does a good job describing a milieu heavy on tarnish and decay. A catalogue of sex, drugs, violence, and more sex, Mount Royal has little in the way of a story to tell, but rather moves quickly through a series of vignettes based on the hook-ups between users and pushers, prostitutes and their johns.
Johnny’s acquaintances fall into these same two groups of friends in low places and strangers in high. Among the former are the vaguely artistic but underemployed and unmotivated bohos found throughout much contemporary urban fiction. Meanwhile, the economies of sex and drugs being based on exploitation, a darker picture is drawn of the rich and powerful degenerates who constitute a grotesque ruling elite. For some reason, this class is mostly associated with government mandarins: bureaucrats, public servants, and the like. Perhaps this is simply a way of underlining the hypocrisy of their existence, but it also feels like a very Canadian resentment of the establishment.
Papademos is writing in the tradition of gutter realism, and the “street” here is almost a character in itself. Certainly the underside of Montreal is memorably evoked. In other respects, however, the novel is more conventional, even if better written than most examples of this sub-sub-genre. While lively and frank, the sex scenes follow the general rule that says the more graphically described the proceedings are the less probable they seem. And as a novel without a story the book concludes with a loose and predictable denouement that has Johnny’s gang dissolving through death and distance. One gets the sense Papademos wants us to feel sympathy for Johnny and his friends, but in the end they are not a lost but a wasted generation and hard to really care about. A short walk on the wild side, Mount Royal quickly gives the reader all they can take.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2012.