Skip to content

From the archives

The Melmac Years

My peculiar resin d’être

Maple Branches

Who talks of my nation?

Listening In

What recent populist victories tell us about Canada

From Manners to Manhood

A comic novel about the difference between being proper and being decent

Mark Abley

Toby: A Man

Todd Babiak

HarperCollins

330 pages, softcover

The literary map of Montreal includes a few neighbourhoods in which every street, every block, almost every house has been filtered through a prism of writerly attention: the Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile End and Outremont, to begin with. It also contains large expanses that remain nearly entirely blank in both official languages. The lawn-filled suburbs of the West Island, Laval and the South Shore were developed mainly after World War Two, and although many writers and artists grew up there, the vast majority have left in favour of hipper pastures. I can think of only a few good English-language novels about these areas: Joel Yanofsky’s Jacob’s Ladder and Linda Leith’s The Tragedy Queen come immediately to mind. Both appeared in the 1990s from literary presses.

For a West Island resident like myself, there is something chastening in the idea that when one of Canada’s largest trade publishers finally brings out a novel based in a suburb adjacent to my own, that novel should be written by a resident of Edmonton. The setting of Toby: A Man marks a departure for Todd Babiak, whose three previous books have been grounded in his home province. Babiak lived briefly in Montreal about 15 years ago, and has carried out some diligent research for his latest novel. But he is not intimate with the city, and he commits some disconcerting gaffes. No anglo living in the West Island would talk about “rue Collingwood” as Babiak consistently does (by contrast, he refers to a downtown thoroughfare as “University Street”). Indeed the book’s first sentences are profoundly misleading: “East of boulevard Saint-Laurent on the island of Montreal, it was ungracious to speak the language of the sovereign. If one were forced by circumstance, one whispered.” Babiak might argue that the wording reflects the sensibility of the book’s hero, Toby Ménard (Mushinsky). But Toby is mistaken, and the effect is that the book opens with a prejudiced cliché.

Babiak’s earlier books won praise for their “screwball comedy,” “keen wit” and “kookiness”—Richard Ford, no less, called The Book of Stanley “deft and often very, very funny.” So I turned to Toby: A Man expecting humour and at moments the author delivered. A long passage describing the hero’s efforts to change the badly soiled diaper of a two-year-old boy is hilariously excruciating. But beware: if this is a comic novel, it is also a novel whose central topics include dementia, child abandonment, unemployment, cancer, betrayal, bereavement and attempted suicide. After a while I began to wonder if Babiak’s reputation or self-image as a satirist was standing in the way of the book he really wanted, or needed, to write.

When the story begins, Toby is a TV personality whose picture looms up on billboards throughout Montreal. He seems to own the city. As the host of Toby: A Gentleman, he gives weekly lessons on etiquette to a public hungry to master the intricacies of handkerchief folding, wine ordering and cell phone wearing and why it is socially unacceptable to remove a suit jacket during dinner. A bachelor in his late thirties with a rich and beautiful girlfriend, he has long since abandoned Dollard des Ormeaux—the West Island suburb where he grew up and where his parents continue to live. But his father is seriously ill: mentally and, it turns out, physically. After Toby discovers that his girlfriend has been sleeping with his boss, he loses his wits in a live on-air interview with a black man, which results in his immediate dismissal. Forced to move back into the basement of his parents’ bungalow, he soon becomes responsible for Hugo, the toddler son of an unstable Québécois woman with whom he has enjoyed a one-night stand. Adversity requires him to learn, not how to act like a gentleman, but how to be a man.

This is, in short, an ambitious book, and Babiak fulfils some of his ambitions. He gracefully handles the change in Toby’s lightweight personality—it amounts to a transformation of sorts—as well as the fraught relationship between Toby and Edward, his dying father. Edward could easily have been a pathetic figure, yet Babiak gives him a welcome dignity. He also shows confidence and flair in evoking the joys and occasional miseries of life with a two-year-old boy. The female characters, by contrast, are portrayed without very much depth or sympathy. And at several moments, unfortunately, Babiak’s tone veers dramatically off course. It is a mistake for a 21st-century novelist, even or especially one from Alberta, to describe popular Quebec culture as “Pepsi-tude”; it is even more of a blunder (an inexplicable one) to have a minor character declare, “Negro got on one knee.” 

I am not sure if Babiak’s treatment of Dollard des Ormeaux—both the suburban municipality and the 17th-century Frenchman after whom it takes its name—counts as a missed opportunity or a serious error. He never quite catches the rich irony inherent in this most ahistorical, non-Québécois of Montreal neighbourhoods bearing that particular name. “It had been a wilder river in 1660,” he writes, “when Adam Dollard des Ormeaux, the twenty-five-year-old missionary, passed on his way to meet the Iroquois—who tortured, killed, and devoured him.” (In truth Dollard was a soldier, not a missionary, and writers today seldom treat the vexed question of Iroquois cannibalism in so casual a way.) “In the intervening centuries, the men of Quebec had not significantly improved their prospects for success.” If this is merely an offhand sneer, how did it survive beyond the first draft? And if it is not an offhand sneer, what is Babiak saying? Is the novelist, like his hero, prone to bursts of sudden stupidity?

Babiak needs to decide, I suspect, what kind of author he wants to be. As a successful newspaper columnist in Edmonton, he may have found it helpful to know all about brand names. But as a novelist, he cannot rely on brand names to do the hard work of characterization. The following passage shows the limitations of his style: “Toby had been in elementary school the last time the walls had been painted. Yet when he had neared graduation, and had veered toward the prep-school aesthetic, Edward and Karen had found room in the budget to keep him in the West Island uniform of Polo and Lacoste shirts, Sperry Top-Siders, white pants by Yves Saint Laurent, pastel Givenchy shaker knit sweaters, and Ray-Ban sunglasses.” It is not just the parade of labels that troubles me here; it is also the sagging quality of the prose. Babiak’s dialogue is often crisp and snappy, yet a novel cannot live by dialogue alone. 

Even so, he almost won me over with a moving description of Edward’s death and funeral, and Toby’s stunned reaction. After which, in the last 50 pages, he goes on to tie everything and everybody up in a tidy, unlikely set of knots. This satisfies the formal requirements of comedy, I realize. But since some of the worst things about Toby: A Man involve Babiak’s efforts to be funny, and since many of the best things involve serious issues and emotional commitments, the final chapters amount to yet another disappointment. Babiak wants his readers not only to laugh at his characters’ foibles but to feel their deep pain. It is a difficult balancing act. Maybe next time, if he is back on home ground, 

Mark Abley is the author of several books, among them Conversations with a Dead Man: Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott.

Advertisement

Advertisement