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Everything I Own: the complicated bond of father and son

A classic pop record inspires a highly original first novel by Raymond Beauchemin embracing family and music.
Raymond Beauchemin’s novel is, in some respects, a love song to Quebec and its many bridges.
Raymond Beauchemin’s novel is, in some respects, a love song to Quebec and its many bridges.

In 1972, the tune Everything I Own was a hit for the Californian soft-rock band Bread. It was later covered by a variety of artists as a love song and while that proved to be a popular interpretation, it wasn't true to songwriter David Gates's original intent: the sincere, heartfelt lyrics were actually written in memory of his late father.

This fact wasn't lost on author Raymond Beauchemin, a former editor on this newspaper, who has named his playful, introspective, first novel after Gates's song and instilled it with a sense of loss and yearning - plus a twist. While the novel focuses on the love between a father and son, it's not a memorial to their eternal bond. Instead, it tracks the nature of the resentment that sprang up between them, grew more intense, and permanently scarred their relationship.

The book is narrated by Michel LaFlamme, a successful 43-year-old pop and folk songwriter living in Montreal with his wife, a Quebecer. Michel was born in the United States but his working-class father moved the family to the southern Quebec town of Sabrevois in 1970 when Michel was 10, and he has lived in Quebec ever since.

The book begins with Michel being stuck on one of Montreal's many bridges as he's driving to the airport to pick up his stepdaughter, Laurence (whom we later learn has been away in Europe for a decade). "I neared the centre span, and congratulated myself on the decision to take the bridge instead of the tunnel that morning," Michel says. "And then traffic stopped… I felt suspended, mid-errand, mid-voyage, mid-thought."

He turns on the radio and hears a song that launches his thoughts backward in time. "I hit the button several times before the scan function stopped and I found myself crossing another bridge. Bijou was on the radio." We discover that Bijou Boisclair, Michel's wife, known simply as Bijou, was a member of a pop-folk band called Beaupré, and is a massive star in Quebec and much of the world. To this point, we've been given no indication that Michel was married to a music legend, but all the book's major themes will come together as the story of their love and music is told.

Named after a song, the novel is also structured like one. The sections of the book are listed as "verses," with shorter "choruses" in between, ending with a bridge and a final chorus. No mere gimmick, the book-as-song device hints at the careful structure Beauchemin devised for this time-shifting narrative. Fluid transitions occur as tonal shifts when new facets of Michel's life come to light and subsequently accrue meaning.

The story all takes place as a sentimental journey in Michel's memory, as he searches for what has made him feel so unsettled about his songwriting and his marriage. Flashback scenes form a portrait of the artist as a young Quebecer, then slip forward to scenes that show the effects of Michel's past on his troubled present life with Bijou.

Looking back, Michel relates many enjoyable scenes of his teenage years going to concerts, dating girls and listening to records with friends equally obsessed with music. But it's a more serious story than Almost Famous, the Cameron Crowe film it echoes at times. Michel tells of the death of his grade-school friend, Claude, and Claude's hatred of his father. And Michel learns hard lessons about the ugly side of Quebecois nationalism from his friend, Marc, who insults Michel for being born in the United States. "Did my French sound so different from his?" Michel wonders. "And how could I 'think like an American' when I'd spent more than half my life in Quebec?" Michel is baffled by Marc's refusal to listen to any music that sounds "British, American or black," touching on the major theme of Quebecois politics, including the failed referendum in 1980 to separate from Canada, and racism's part in the sovereignty movement.

Michel decides early on that songwriting is his calling. "I knew desperately, the way one knows, even at age 14, that one is hopelessly, precariously in love, that it was writing that electrified my blood." But Michel's working-class father destroys a songwriting journal, demands that Michel work "a trade" and forget about art. Michel never comes to terms with his father's disapproval and lack of warmth. As an adult, Michel looks back at his father's anger, sees remnants of 1950s male social roles and tries to vow he'll never repeat old mistakes. "The wuss, the waffler, the workaholic, the physically abusive or invisible father, they were the products of that era, descendants of a long line of similarly victimised, anxious, severe and out-of-control men… I was so determined not to let that happen in the family Bijou and I created with Laurence."

As a teenager, Michel first sees Bijou, his future wife, on the cover of a magazine. She is 11 years older than Michel, but before long, thanks to a tip from a professor, he's auditioning songs for Bijou in her posh Montreal recording studio. Love, and a contract to write songs for her, soon follow. Bijou is Michel's muse and there are a lot of fun passages showing the couple as they create hits, grow rich, and Bijou's success continues in her solo years, after her band, Beaupré, has split up. It's a testament to Beauchemin's skill that Beaupré seems just as real as the other bands they mingle with over the years, even making an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

The book also operates as a love song to Quebec. Some of Beauchemin's best writing comes when he's describing how Beaupré's music, a pure fiction, captures the province's spirit with songs that have become something of a national treasure, brought to life in richly detailed passages such as this: "These were songs about Chinese dépanneur owners; longshoremen in the Old Port huddled in cigarette smoke while they wait for a container ship to come in; managers of hotels on Ste. Catherine St. watching the whores and their johns; hunters up in the Mauricie; a M'iqmaq in Shefferville trimming a moccasin with multi-coloured beads the size of roe; an artist in the Latin Quarter asleep in her loft. Years from then, when people tried to imagine Quebec, to know it, they might read Kamouraska or L'avalée des avalés or Beautiful Losers, but they would not know it any more intimately than by listening to the music of Beaupré."

Eventually, we're shown how harsh reality has set in for Michel and Bijou. Michel's feelings of being an outsider in Quebec and the lingering anger he bears towards his dead father have soured what he used to love in life.

Sitting in his car stuck in traffic Michel tells how he and his wife reached the point where, "I hadn't written new material for Bijou in five years; we were exhausted from worry about [Bijou's daughter]Laurence and fighting over the [separatist] referendum. My wife said I sounded like my father every time I opened my mouth with pronouncements about Quebec."

What emerges is a thoughtful, detailed portrait of the many ways sadness in life is linked to beauty. And though the novel is openly nostalgic, it avoids easy pay-offs and simplified life lessons. Some minor instances of overcooked prose occur, intruding like pop song lyrics ("a final spectrum of light, like a disappointed rainbow") and a few failed bons mots ("Death is life's dance partner"). But these are quibbles and Beauchemin includes believable plot turns late in the novel that address Michel's sense of guilt about his marriage, and the reason Bijou's daughter Laurence has been away for so long.

A key scene in Michel's memory occurs late in the book, when he visits his grandmother in a retirement home. She tells him lovingly, yet bluntly: "Your father's dead. What does it mean to him how you feel about him? Your relationship with him has plagued you all your life … You don't need to reconcile with him. Reconcile yourself. Go home to your wife and be there for your daughter."

The novel concludes with a wonderful final "chorus" and a scene that ties all the themes together with equal parts to hope and sadness, as Michel realises, "I had lived my life so differently than the way I wrote music".

Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award.

Published: January 13, 2012 04:00 AM

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