The Streets of Winter

by Stephen Henighan
ISBN: 1894345762

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A Review of: The Streets of Winter
by Nancy Wigston

In The Streets of Winter, Stephen Henigan shows us a Montreal quite different from the one we like to fantasize about. Rather than showcasing the usual images of Canada's most romantic, lively, and inclusive metropolis, this episodic tale evokes something closer to Yeats's reflective, unsentimental lines about Ireland-"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave." Henighan takes us deep inside his multi-layered city (the year is 1988), where it's a dated clich-and politically incorrect at that-to call Montreal women the most beautiful in the world. During one of multiple encounters we witness between various twosomes in the book, a woman pointedly tells her lover not to compare her to a geographic discovery. Whatever she is, she is most certainly not his "Montreal."
In fact Henighan's cityscape is so shot through with urban angst and dark humour that it could serve as an anti-brochure about living in what was once called the Paris of North America.' Composed of several interwoven plot lines, all of which focus on the immense energy and luck it takes for various men to establish viable lives in Montreal (Henighan's women, by contrast, tend to be sketches, even caricatures), we are frequently shocked by Henighan's bluntness. Take Andr, for instance. The once-passionate separatist, returned from a year in Paris, finds that the political force that once meant everything to him has fragmented and lost its vigour. He feels "abandoned" by his city, where, in his opinion, "dark-skinned foreigners" threaten the social fabric of French Qubec. In a lovely bit of parody, Henighan has this souverainiste discover that his youthful political idol has become a farmer, an habitant, spending his time milking cows, in permanent exile from the city.
Like the majority of his former compatriots, Andr's personal life-not his political journey-has become his passion. We watch as this formerly married man struggles to come to terms with his gay persona in The Plateau neighbourhood, not-too-ruefully joining the trend. When the greying ideologue-turned-farmer, Raymond, drops in for an evening with his ex-wife, Andr rushes over to enjoy a night of potent conversation-only to realize how boring the old routines have become. In a plot twist typical of Henighan's style, this immigrant-hating separatist falls head over heels in love with S?uleyman, a married man-and a Turk.
But Andr is far from the only-or even the most interesting--character to have trouble adjusting to the new Montreal. At the heart of Henighan's intersecting plot lines is a thirty-year-old Moroccan Jew called Marcel. Like everyone else, he brings a tangled history with him, in the form of his Sephardic family who saved him in childhood and aim to control him in the present. Rebelling by marrying out'-his wife is a Qubecoise artist from an Outremont family-Marcel is a compulsive womanizer who fiercely resents Abitbol, his domineering brother-in-law and employer. Of all the actors in Henighan's drama, it is Marcel who continually surprises us by his erratic yet curiously understandable behaviour. Loving his classy wife-or at least loving the idea of her-he betrays her at every turn.
The one job he is assigned-to partially renovate a pair of apartment buildings in Anglo N.D.G and force out the sitting tenants so Abitbol can flip the buildings for a quick profit-forms the novel's central drama. Ironically, Henighan shows how Montreal has changed, from a place full of large and affordable places where everyone can to live, to a battleground dominated by the new capitalists. In effect, it has become Toronto. The connected buildings are called-like a signature from the vanished Anglos-the Victoria-Waterloo, and Marcel's struggle to remove his weird gaggle of tenants provides endless fodder for emotional and physical fireworks.
One of the newest tenants, Teddy, belongs to Henighan's team of confused young men. A rich orphan from Ottawa, Teddy has returned to Canada after living in California; in Montreal he searches for some sense of belonging-to what exactly is never clear, most of all to him. "Oh Montreal," Teddy apostrophizes, "all the little islands jostling each other on the big island with the extinct volcano in the middleits flamboyance turned out to be each group's way of holding the others at a distance." "His family's two hundred years in this country are petering out; Teddy has extinction very much on his mind. The most desperate of the men in the book when it comes to women, his eagerness chases them away, leaving him ever more lonely and bewildered. Yet his financial inheritance lends him strength for the battle with the evil landlord, and it is Teddy, unlucky in love, who sticks it out the longest and becomes our Mordecai Richler in the field, as it were. "A man without a land is nothing," says Teddy, paraphrasing Duddy Kravitz's grandfather, adding another layer of richness to a text littered with cultural and political references. In Henighan's serial portraits of interlocking fresh starts and dead ends, Teddy surprises us with his heroism during the last-ditch battle for the Victoria-Waterloo.
Although Henighan's Montreal is obviously not an urban paradise, his own inventiveness makes up for the charms his characters mordantly maintain that the city lacks. Yet another struggling male, Jo?ao, gives us an insider's scoop on an immigrant, a Portuguese, who arrives here without family help. Jo?ao, indeed, is doubly an immigrant, having worked in Lyon, France, for many years. He has escaped on the heels of a paternity claim after his liaison with Flore, a Frenchwoman whose flesh smelled "ranksalty", resulted in a daughter. As with the Quebecer's bitter racist slurs against immigrants, we disapprove of his act of desertion, but Henighan's tale is at least partially a morality play that ensures that one way or anohter, Jo?ao will pay. At his first job, where he can't use the skills he has brought with him, he is brutalized by his fellow workers. Finally he finds suitable work, starts making money, and meets a Chinese woman raised in Portuguese Africa. Things look bright at last. It is during this brief flowering in Jo?ao's life that Henighan writes the words about the city that we so much want to hear. "He ambled into the tatterdemalion humanity of the red-light district where Ste-Catherine crossed St-Laurent, delighted by the ramshackle tolerance of this city that left him alone to become whomever he wished." His destiny is far from the sure thing that this moment implies, but the connection has nevertheless been made between the streets of Montreal and an optimistic transcendence, reconfirming our own secret desires for what, for many of us, is the best place this country has to offer. In the end, the romance with Montreal is not quite "dead and gone"; the city still offers newcomers something to live for, even if, in the words of another of Henighan's creations, one of his legion of "tatterdemalion humanity," things were "wonderful because [they were] hopeless."

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