Necessary Betrayals is the English-language debut of Montrealer Guillaume Vigneault. It is a translation of Vigneault's second novel, Chercher le vent, a refreshingly original road novel that is blessed with exceptional emotional intelligence but occasionally marred by moments of excessive melodrama.
Vigneault's narrator is Jacques "Jack" Dubois, a professional photographer and former bush pilot who is just entering middle age. He is divorced, has few friends, and lives a life of intense boredom, shuffling back and forth between a cottage at La Minerve in backwoods Quebec, Val d'Or, and Montreal. On a whim, Jack decides to spring Tristan Molinari, the twentysomething brother of Monica, his ex-wife, from a psychiatric hospital. Tristan is an interesting sort¨he is an undereducated math prodigy, a stock-market whiz, and a violent manic depressive. Together they head to Jack's cabin, where they receive a telephone call from Monica's mother, informing them that her daughter is pregnant. Jack is devastated by the news; Tristan suggests that they take Jack's old Buick and go on a road trip.
They first pause for breakfast in Montreal. While they nurse their meals, Tristan announces that he is in love with one of the cafT's waitresses¨a fiery young woman who happens to be in the midst of a spat with her boss. The waitress leaves the cafT, and Tristan follows her outside to plead his case on the sidewalk, without much success.
Things start to get interesting as the two men drive out of Montreal, heading for New York State¨they're barely on their way when they drive past the waitress, who is hitchhiking her way out of town. They pick her up without hesitation, and Tristan, Jack, and Nuna (who proves to be a Catalan biology student spending her summer holidays drifting) enter into a spirited discussion about love, chaos, and coincidence. Nuna proves to be a tough young woman, an inquisitive character with a scathing tongue¨just what is needed to shake Jack and Tristan out of their torpor.
Their first destination is a tiny New England fishing town, which the travelers embrace like the drunken, irresponsible, off-season tourists they are. After an en evening of heavy drinking in a local bar, in which Tristan's manic, aggressive nature reasserts itself, leading to a bar brawl with a hulking brute whose specialty is eating raw sea urchins, spines and all, Jack decides to escape the community entirely and rents an isolated beach home. He spends his days and nights in total psychological isolation, reliving the pivotal events of his marriage and his two stagnant careers. Meanwhile, Tristan and Nuna enjoy a fleeting romance, indulging in occasional sex and numerous games of chess. Eventually, Nuna makes a pass at oblivious, hypersensitive Jack, prompting him to ditch the sometime couple and take to the highway once more.
Jack eventually finds himself working in a tiny restaurant in Shell Beach, Louisiana, the only employee of an even-tempered African-American named Derek. Shell Beach proves to be a comfortable milieu in which Jack can sort himself out; Derek's easygoing friendship is combined with plenty of hard honest work and the occasional fishing trip. Jack's sojourn is interrupted by a devastating hurricane which utterly destroys Derek's restaurant, but his brief spell in the south gives him the perspective he needs to face up to Monica, Tristan, Nuna, and even his twin callings, flying and photography.
Susan Ouriou's translation smoothly renders Vigneault's brisk, readable French as brisk, readable English. The dialogue does suffer a little; Ouriou curtails Vigneault's profanity somewhat, by replacing distinctively QuTbecois curses like "Calvaire" with generic English expletives and by letting the characters cuss with a little less vehemence. More importantly, the polyglot texture of the original is also lost¨Vigneault's border-crossing characters often break into snatches of English, reinforcing their status as foreign interlopers in the United States, but their bilingualism inevitably disappears when the novel is translated.
The greatest problem with Necessary Betrayals is Vigneault's occasional weakness for overwrought symbolism. Jack's old career as a bush pilot is an aspect of his character that seems contrived, as though it were grafted on to allow for a couple of key moments of pathos. Vigneault goes to great lengths to set up the flight of an airplane as an extended metaphor for the life and death of a relationship. Jack is able to pinpoint the precise moment at which his marriage to Monica ends: it is a day on which he tries to take her up for a flight in his Cessna, to see their newly renovated home from the air. Their plane runs into engine trouble and crashes on takeoff, crashing into the row of trees at the end of the runway. Neither Jack nor Monica is permanently injured, but a drop of blood between Monica's thighs turns into a substantial hemorrhage, and the local doctors predict that she will never be able to have children again. The crash itself is attributed to impurities in the fuel, impurities that are due to Jack's flagrant neglect of his aircraft and the consequent corrosion of its fuel tank. The metaphor is a neat one but over-sentimentalized, which makes it rather difficult to stomach, especially when it is revisited at the very end of the novel.
Aside from these moments of over-played symbolism, Necessary Betrayals is a powerful and subtly unconventional book. Vigneault carefully reworks the cavernous clichTs that mar most beat-influenced road novels; not only is Jack singularly uninterested in the glamour of New York's artistic circles, but he is also too comfortable in the working-class south to sentimentalize the people he meets there. Jack's ennui and cynicism are gradually revealed to be the beginnings of wisdom; once the bitterness has been worked out of his system, he returns to a creative and loving life, albeit as a sadder and wiser man. This is a transition that is perfectly in keeping with the Zen philosophy that Jack occasionally ruminates on, but it is accomplished without the ersatz paeans to Buddhism that proliferate in the pages of Kerouac and his followers. Vigneault's ability to subvert a revered genre so effectively while writing a sincere, insightful, original love story is genuinely impressive. It is to be hoped that he will eventually lose his penchant for melodrama, for he has all the makings of an extraordinary novelist. ˛