Sandman Blues

227 pages,
ISBN: 077375783X

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Love from Shoplifting
by Mark Breslin

ONE thing you have to give Generation X: they really know how to go for the bronze. The twenty-something generation, slackers to the core, have made a cultural statement out of flying under the radar, wearing their lack of ambition as a badge of pride. Books by authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Douglas Coupland illustrate this emotionally arid landscape with varying degrees of skill, but even a skilled writer can't make it satisfying. Gen X fiction is often riddled with characters too apathetic to even whine. When the numb shrug, it's a gesture so slight as to be barely noticeable.
So when the cover blurb for Sandman Blues mentions "the problems of twenty-somethings", one's pulse slows in anticipation of a dull, drawn-out evening with the road-show cast of a Thursday evening sitcom. But the welcome surprise is that Bourguignon's novel is nothing like Friends. Its characters aren't downwardly mobile because they have too much education-it's because they have no money. They drink beer, not espresso. They work at menial jobs, not because they're too busy interfacing with cyberspace, but because these are the only jobs they can get (and even these they can't hold onto for long).
Sandman Blues' main character, Lucien, is an underemployed blue-collar Québécois who is reeling from a recent tragedy: his girlfriend was killed by a stray bullet only a few months before. He lives with his best friend, Pierrot, whom he admires, and who is the leader in their adventures. In the opening scenes, they go to a bar and meet a beautiful, strong-willed woman named Sonia. Instead of fighting over her, Lucien graciously accedes to her greater interest in his pal and lets the two link up romantically. This is Bourguignon's way of showing that Lucien is likeable and loyal. Lucien may be lazy, he may wallow in melancholy, but at least he's a mensch.
And now a very lonely mensch, until Annie blows into his life. Their initial contact fits the very definition of "meeting cute". While working at a grocery stand, he sees her stealing produce, and runs after her-as it turns out, in more ways than one. They fall in love, and in lust. Here, unfortunately, Bourguignon proves he's no Henry Miller; romantic cliché follows purple prose in his descriptions of Lucien's ardour. The weakness may be in the translation, but I found this aspect of the book forced and clumsy. Maybe a line like "I moved from one breast to the other like a bulimic who's got a veal shoulder in one hand and a leg of lamb in the other" can only be delivered with a straight face in French.
Annie wants a child, and Lucien-well, he's not sure, not sure of much, in fact; ironically, his lack of direction gives the book its drive. He's got to grow up to find the love he needs, but, as psychiatrists say, he's resisting. Meanwhile, his friend Pierrot copes with Sonia's pregnancy in a neat parallel structure that also propels the novel forward. There's a subplot about Lucien's grandfather, but apart from providing opportunities for a lot of "horny old geezer" jokes, I'm not sure what purpose it serves.
Bourguignon's treatment of women in the novel is refreshing. Annie's insistence on getting pregnant is a symbol of her empowerment, not enslavement. The women here are strong, much stronger than the males. They are women who can outdrink, outrun, and outfight any man. The difficulty I have with this-that is, besides wondering what Robert Bly might think-is that Annie and Sonia are too alike, while their lives and fates are worlds apart.
The novel's working-class anti-trendiness makes it feel like a sixties throwback, a hippie bildungsroman that is a bit reminiscent of Been Down So Long It Looks like Up to Me, or an early Brautigan work. Though the story seems to be set in Montreal (which, with Vancouver Island, is one of the few places in Canada where the sixties never died), it works hard to dodge any particularities of setting. Change the French names and we could be anywhere seedy and trendy: Oakland, Seattle, wherever. I had a hard time figuring out what was Québécois about the novel. True, the characters smoke hash, but they never discuss sovereignty, though the younger generation in Quebec is allegedly obsessed with it. I can't imagine that the omission is a casual one; I wonder whether Bourguignon is making a sly satirical point. Are Lucien and his buddies emblematically apolitical, more representative of Quebec's youth than the media would have us believe?
Or maybe Bourguignon is saying that most of us lead modest, self-involved lives, too busy just making life work to worry about the larger issues. Sandman Blues is modest in the same way as its characters: the book prefers to live from moment to moment, rather than scoring huge philosophical points. This is fine, but I wish the author had been more digressive at times; the book's structure seems too schematic and could stand a little opening up.
Sandman Blues has already sold over ten thousand copies in French, and one can understand why. It's a charming novel filled with appealing characters. Is it funny? Bourguignon seems to lack the killer instinct necessary for satire, and the cynicism needed for wit, but belly laughs aren't the only measure of humour. This book offers a tiny universe of smiles, no small feat for a book about people in their twenties who haven't yet discovered the Internet, and wouldn't care if they had.

Mark Breslin is the chief executive officer of Yuk Yuk's International, which is a large chain of comedy clubs.


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