The Three Percent blog has just finished a month of posts and features on literature from Quebec, so having kicked off March with a fun Canadian novel, I thought it might be nice to follow it up with another. In a short text I was asked to contribute a while back for an online feature (but, as far as I know, was never actually published), I described literature from Quebec as ‘quirky’, and after finishing today’s choice, I see no reason to change my opinion. However, as well as being fun and odd, this latest slice of Canadian fiction is also rather dark. Be warned – if you’re an animal lover, this book may not be for you…
David Goudreault’s Mama’s Boy (translated by JC Sutcliffe, review copy courtesy of Book*hug) is a first-person account of the life of a young man growing up in Quebec. His childhood is punctuated by a series of moves, mostly caused by his mother’s suicide attempts, and after the pair are finally parted when he’s seven years old, he’s sent to a number of foster homes, none of which work out. Despite falling into bad habits, our friend is an optimistic soul, believing that things will somehow work out for the best.
Proof of this comes when he is tipped off years later as to the whereabouts of his mother, whom he had assumed to have finally managed to kill herself long ago. With a new purpose to his life, he moves to a new town, gets a new job and carefully checks out his mother’s new life in preparation for a tearful reunion. The thing is, it’s been a long time since the pair were separated, and the reader senses that he may not get the warm welcome he’s been waiting for…
That’s one way of looking at Mama’s Boy, but this brief summary leaves out one tiny, but essential, detail – the narrator happens to be a psychopath. Right from his early days, he happily recounts events you’d rather not hear about:
For several months, I’d been in the habit of torturing animals whenever I was frustrated. I must have been very frustrated on that particular day. The animal didn’t survive the combination of centrifugal force and my bedroom door frame. It made an odd noise, soft and dry at the same time.
p.22 (Book*hug, 2018)
This is just the first of a litany of horrible actions, and with this knowledge, you can probably read between the lines of the summary above. For ‘move to a new town’, read ‘shoot through with his landlady’s money’ and for ‘checks out his mother’s new life’ read ‘stalks her relentlessly’ 😦
I have to admit that I struggled a little with Goudreault’s novel in the early stages. With the story told in the narrator’s matter-of-fact voice, relating one vile action after another, you really wonder what’s in it for you, the reader. The casual sexism and homophobia are bad enough, but when he moves on to actually committing crimes, it’s tempting to call it a day, particularly when you sense that this can only spiral into ever greater acts of violence.
Luckily, though, Mama’s Boy does contain a bit of a twist, and that has much to do with the way the story is told completely through the eyes of our deranged narrator. You see, while he talks the talk, he doesn’t always walk the walk, and eventually we realise that our friend is very much a Loser (with the capital L firmly emphasised). It’s here that the humour starts to outweigh the darkness, with Goudreault letting us in on the joke, allowing his anti-hero just enough rope to hang himself (if never fatally):
The idea of settling down to a stable job at the SPCA crossed my mind the same way you cross the street – fairly quickly. I remembered where I’d come from, my principles and my values. I didn’t want to be anyone’s peon just to enrich the system. I don’t believe in work, it’s a form of modern slavery. I’ve read Richard Marx. He’s an author who’s really down on capitalism. (p.74)
Das Kapital and Hazard – a talented man 😉
It’s no coincidence that I began to enjoy the book more once the narrator set off to look for his mother, at the same time attempting to fit into real life in his own deluded way. He’s surprisingly suited to the job he finds at the SPCA (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) given that his tasks include putting down unwanted pets and shooting unruly dogs with tranquiliser darts, and he makes a connection between the abandoned pets and his own life:
It’s actually the same problem with foster families. People are keen to take their cheque and shine their halo, but they don’t want the problem kids, the disabled ones, or any other demanding little brats. People want children in need, but just enough to fill their own needs. Abandoned animals and children are advised to be cute. I’m well placed to tell you this. (p.68)
Despite his misgivings, his work occasionally gives him a sense of achievement, and you could almost imagine him actually turning over a new leaf and settling down…
…for about five minutes, anyway. Once he gets out of his uniform, it’s back to staking out his mother’s house, taking enough drugs to floor an elephant and hooking up with women he met online. The longer the story goes, the more we see just how distorted his view of himself is. The image of a good-looking hard-fighting man, popular with the ladies and impressive in bed, is chipped away at, scene by scene, only kept from melting away entirely by our friend’s seemingly bomb-proof self-confidence. No matter how bad the situation, how brutal the beating, there’s always a sense that this was all just down to bad luck, and that tomorrow will see things turn his way.
Mama’s Boy won’t be for everyone (and if you’re a cat lover, this comes with a ten-mile-high neon trigger warning…), but the gradual development of the main character, or at least our perception of him, makes this an interesting read. And if you enjoy it, I have good news for you. The author bio at the back of the book says there are a couple of sequels, both of which will be brought out by Book*hug in due course. Obviously, this is one man it’s hard to keep down, even with the police, strippers and the Canadian SPCA on his trail. Oh, and his mum, of course 😉