One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble|
by Neale McDevitt
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by Joel Yanofsky
Charles Bukowski is the writer you can't help think of when you read Montreal writer Neale McDevitt's debut collection of short stories One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble. Bukowski with muscles, that is. Short and stocky, with a shaved head and goatee, McDevitt looks like a weightlifter, which is, coincidentally, what he used to be. A member, in the mid-Eighties, of the Canadian Weightlifting team, he participated in the Pan-Am and Commonwealth Games. He is, he's pretty sure, the only author around who can clean and jerk 400 pounds. (Margaret Atwood, are you listening?)
As for Bukowski's influence, McDevitt not only acknowledges it, he can't wait to own up to it: "It sounds corny but reading Bukowski was a real epiphany. That wasn't long ago either¨five years ago. I saw the movie Barfly and loved it, but didn't know who it was about. Then I picked up a collection of stories called The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. That's not the day my voice was born, but it was the day I realized that you can write in an alternative way, really gritty but beautiful too," he tells me when we meet at a diner near his home in the west end Montreal district of Notre-Dame-de-Grace, commonly known as NDG.
The section we are in is the less gentrified part of NDG, nicknamed "No Damn Good" by its denizens, which McDevitt most definitely is. He has lived his entire 40 years in a four-block radius. He is, as he would put it, "a lifer." It is, not that surprisingly, this small neighbourhood that he has managed to capture accurately and eloquently in his book. Mordecai Richler used to say that it's a writer's job to be "the loser's advocate," but the fact is Richler had as much scorn for losers as he did for the high and mighty. McDevitt, to his credit, puts his heart where his prose is. His stories, frequently about bums and hookers and barflies or just characters down on their luck, are distinguished by a tough and tender brand of lyricism, McDevitt's particular mix of poetry and edginess.
It's not surprising either that his stories are full of people you don't see very often or, if you do, you aren't always likely to look in the eye. In "Bread Crumbs and Band Saws," a sheet metal worker, disappearing one small body part at a time, becomes a tragic hero. In "Putty in the Locks", a woman survives a traumatic childhood to become a responsible and loving mother. In "Salt", a disillusioned undertaker learns a lesson about love and loyalty from the daughter of one of his clients.
The first half of the book, "The McVie Chronicles", is a series of stories linked by a recurring narrator, McVie, a borderline alcoholic and full-blown romantic fool. It's in McDevitt's opening story, "Notre-Dame-de-Grace", that McVie sets the tone for the collection. In McVie's cul-de-sac world, you hope for the best and expect the worst. Most of all, you hunker down:
"NDG love isn't high art or idyllic devotion. It's visceral and sad and, in many ways, it's based purely on white-knuckled survival. It isn't ephemeral and it surely doesn't soar on gossamer wings. When we are shit-lucky enough to turn up love, or at least some unsuspecting soul who accepts us for being the sedentary, dreamless creatures we are, we hang on dangerously tight like the drowning man pulling down on his saviour."
McVie is not McDevitt, not exactly¨"He's more bitter and burned out than I am," McDevitt says¨but the two, alter ego and author, are both suckers for love's sky-high highs and low-down lows: "In my stories, it can work either way. You can start way down here and be taken up, usually by love. But it's always with the knowledge you will crash. That love will fail somehow. There will be sadness ultimately in that love."
McDevitt employs tall tales and urban legends, even Greek myths to make his point that even the most obscure lives are imbued with significance, even a bit of magic. The image of Icarus flying too close to the sun, for example, runs through the collection, both as a dire warning and a dream worth chasing.
"That is my big thing," McDevitt admits. "We all have our moments of grace and we all have our falls. We can see it in the lives of Mario Lemieux or someone like that. But I won't see yours and you won't see mine. With most people I won't even know that they have that moment of grace, but they do."
McDevitt's first-person narrator McVie can turn a nifty phrase like this one about a love affair gone bad from "The Lighthouse Keeper": "Fuck Van Gogh and his petty gestures. Try having your heart carved out, you Dutch prick." But there are also times when it seems like McDevitt hasn't yet met a metaphor he can resist. He can also carry the barfly romanticism a bit too far. In "Fragile Birds", for example, McVie resorts to writing verse on the backside of a new girlfriend. The story ends up less of an ode to the inspirational power of love and more of a testament to penmanship.
So, yes, there is a wide sentimental streak in One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble, but, in the end, it's McDevitt's unwillingness or, more likely, inability to back away from sentiment that distinguishes this refreshing collection. To be ironic or cynical these days is no great achievement. To have heart, as McDevitt does, and wear it unapologetically on your sleeve, is something to see. ˛