One of the supreme advantages of being born a child of privilege is the freedom to reject the values of one’s own class—having one’s cake, eating it and spitting it out. Far harder to expel is a clinging feeling of entitlement that can consume a lifetime.
Mount Pleasant, the title of Don Gillmor’s mordantly powerful new novel, refers at a surface level to the fabled Toronto cemetery while even more richly and deeply symbolizing the feral, underground forces that entomb three generations of an epically unpleasant WASP family—the living as well as the dead.
Engulfed in mid-life angst in the wake of the 2008 market crash, Harry Salter is a former broadcast journalist turned left-leaning political science teacher—“a white male at the one moment in history when this wasn’t an advantage.” Harry grew up in the exclusive enclave of Rosedale, “a fountain of money that shot out of the ground, and in the gush of afterbirth came the nannies and cooks and gardeners who made multiculturalism such a success.” His aspirations have moved lock-step with the city—“all hours were rush hours now”—yet, like the city, he now teeters dangerously beyond his means, saddled with maxed-out credit cards and a depreciating house that embodies his slide from middle class respectability to genteel poverty. His 25-year marriage to Gladys, a recently down-sized librarian, is tenuously held up by their co-conspiratorial boomer devotion to conspicuous consumption. Their passively resentful son, Ben, listening to the Grateful Dead on his iPod, mirrors Harry’s own alienated youth.
The plot hinges on the untidy aftermath of the death of Harry’s father from brain cancer. An archetype of the carnivorous, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, Bay Street alpha male, Dale Salter was a classically absent father obsessed with bond yields at the expense of familial bonds; his high social station failed to insulate him from the low acts of drunken wife-beating and sexual infidelity. Dale spent most of his career specializing in preserving Old Money, “steering the money of old white people to safe harbours.” But latterly he scored a personal windfall with an oil company aptly named Pathos; Harry anticipates a million-dollar inheritance that will liberate the debt that is “his mistress, the dirty siren who clawed his back.” Yet his father bequeaths only $13,000, an insulting sum that Harry must divide with his well-heeled, married sister Erin, whose razor tongue she inherited from their emasculating mother, Felicia.
Even worse, following his second divorce, Dale had taken up with Dixie, a predatory gold-digger of Harry’s age with sun-damaged skin and a “smile honed in the hospitality industry.” Dixie, the grasping outsider, fails to grasp the hermeticism of old money: “Trying to gain entry to it was like re-entering the earth’s atmosphere; you had to approach at precisely the right angle. If you didn’t, you’d either bounce back into space or burn up.” Yet Harry shares with his father’s quasi-prostitute a scorching sense of entitlement that makes Regan and Goneril look like Care Bears. As he forms an unholy alliance with Dixie to recover the imagined bag of gold—acted out through an impulsive carnal dalliance—Harry wonders: “Were her fourteen months of occasional sexual sacrifice worth more than his and Erin’s years of paternal neglect?”
Suspecting that the money has been embezzled, Harry hires a forensic accountant he cannot afford to probe the rogue’s gallery of tanned profiteers that populate his father’s firm. The barbarians have long since crashed the gilded gates of the old plutocracy, buckling the marble veneer; in the moral quicksand of this profane new world, all you need is greed, for money is “the essential architecture of existence.” Over a high-end Bay Street lunch, Harry questions an oily colleague of his father’s who delivers a murderous, up-to-minute dispatch from the front: “The rich got rich by fucking the poor … so the only people left to fuck are the rich. The market looks like that soccer team that crashed in the mountains. Everyone’s eating each other.”
Harry finds little solace from his aging mother, Felicia, who has retreated from her empty Rosedale manse, echoing with memories of a hellish marriage, to a condo edging Mount Pleasant cemetery. With her familiar, gin-fuelled “cobra smile,” she declares: “Money isn’t much help. Not as much as people think, anyway.” In the nearby mausoleum, Harry visits the crypt of his maternal grandfather, a real estate tycoon who built his fortune on luck and likely bribery. Out of guilt over an affair with a girl “seventeen going on thirty,” he gave his money to the Anglican Church. Harry testily confronts his grandfather’s ghost, who stoutly returns fire: “Everyone here is haunted by something. Two hundred acres of regret. No one rests in peace. Even Banting, the saint, had mistress problems … There’s no vaccine for death.”
Harry’s unrealized rebel streak emerges while teaching a course on Revolutionary Toronto. He asks his young charges, the generation of the Occupy Toronto movement, if they are capable of enacting the dream of William Lyon Mackenzie—the leader of the thwarted 1837 uprising against the Family Compact—to burn down Rosedale. Harry’s own ancestors were members of the Tory elite that Mackenzie yearned to burn: their daguerreotypes hung in his parents’ house, “mouths like zippers, etched straight across, closed and unyielding, people who may have felt communication was a sin.” Yet Harry remains a prisoner of his own cynicism, impotently denouncing the eternal elasticity of the ruling class even as he notes his “failure to evolve” up the status ladder while shopping for a used car. He is failing to revolutionize his own life.
An award-winning journalist and author, Don Gillmor grew up in middle class Winnipeg, which makes his laser-sharp, open-heart surgery of the monied elites of contemporary Toronto all the more impressive; a reportorial drive to expose, coupled with a novelist’s x-ray vision, has created an unflinching portrait of class warfare worthy of Tom Wolfe. From capitalists to hippies, no one escapes the timeless taint of corruption and collusion. A man not sure if he wants what he has, Harry seeks hopefully for “some tragedy amid the caramelized sea scallops in truffle sauce ($48) and the 2008 Puligny-Montrachet ($465),” but finds only pathos: He “didn’t mourn his father’s passing, or even the passing of his money. He mourned the absence of possibility, the procrastination of his life with Gladys, the failure of his own imagination.” By the end, we feel pity, not envy, for the relentlessly unsympathetic cast of “privileged” characters—no small feat.
Gillmor falls short of dancing on the grave of the Family Compact; rumours of its death may be exaggerated. But if it is true that Canadians are unified in their hatred of Toronto, then perhaps his in-your-face, take-no-prisoners cautionary tale makes painfully clear what it is that unites them; some things are worth hating. Don Gillmor has given the best and worst of us something truly valuable to invest in: an excoriating—and exhilarating—wake-up call.