Money carries a very different set of connotations and implications in the works of Canadian authors born between (roughly) 1930 and ’60 and those born after.
For authors such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje, who entered adulthood during an extended period of economic prosperity, upward mobility, and abundant job opportunities, the prospects of financial security and career advancement were something of a given. The characters in their works are generally concerned with questions of identity, self-
expression, and breaking down gender and ethnic barriers that impede them. They also occasionally brood over the now quaint notion of “selling out” their talents and morals for a regular paycheque and mortgage-free house and cottage.
Turning to the fiction of authors born after 1960, we increasingly encounter characters hobbled by massive personal debt, demeaning jobs that offer little security, and the prospect of a retirement without adequate pensions (or no retirement at all). For the late–Baby Boomer and Generation X cohorts, riding three decades of downward mobility that have affected all but the top 10 per cent, selling out is rarely an option, even if many would dearly love the opportunity.
With Mount Pleasant, novelist and popular historian Don Gillmor has written what is probably the best example to date in what will no doubt become a burgeoning sub-genre of CanLit: the Canadian Debt Novel. His protagonist, Harry Salter, is a fairly typical upper-middle-class, late–Baby Boomer liberal. As a young man, Harry eschewed his old-money background to dabble in the more creative and personally fulfilling realms of academia and journalism, with the expectation of a stable, high-paying position awaiting him in middle age. The golden handshake never arrived for Harry or his wife, Gladys, a now unemployed (and unemployable) librarian. Having lost his job at the nation’s public broadcaster during yet another round of budget slashing, Harry toils as an untenured professor, racking up frighteningly high credit card and bank debts.
Harry’s financial ace in the hole is the imminent demise of his estranged father, Dale, a wealthy investment broker dying of brain cancer. Immune to the pieties of political correctness (“a chain-smoking, pesticide-spreading clear-cutter… a driver of motorboats”), Dale represents the old school and old money. Dale is also, Harry believes, a shrewd but conservative investor of his clients’ fortunes. By Harry’s estimates, Dale should be good for at least a $500,000 inheritance, and he needs that vision of his father to be true. If debt is Harry’s mistress – “the dirty siren who clawed his back” – his line of credit is “a kind of friend, someone who’d lend him money anytime for any reason and wasn’t worried about when he’d repay it. When Harry’s inheritance arrived, he’d planned to happily repay his friend back.”
Harry’s plan is punctured at the reading of Dale’s will, when the elder Salter is revealed to be almost broke. Harry’s inheritance adds up to a paltry $4,200, leaving him two choices: find out what happened to his father’s money and, if possible, retrieve some of it, or sell the family house to pay off his debts and buy a small condo with what’s left.
With nothing to lose, and aided by an expensive forensic accountant, Harry plunges into a search for his father’s vanished personal fortune, a journey that takes him into the shady but perfectly legal world of global finance. There he learns that his father, losing traction in an increasingly risky market environment, made an unwise financial gamble before he died. Harry, it seems, is not the only dinosaur in the new economy: his own father was left behind by the 21st-century cycle of financial bubbles and crashes.
The novel contains many excellent comic set pieces and characters, including a German architect whose conceptual plans for renovating his house are never actually realized, and a colleague from Dale’s firm whose operatic metaphors for the new economy are reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s earlier, funnier novels. The satire and self-lacerating humour are dead on and mercilessly dramatize broader social and economic truths.
Less successful are several short, overly cerebral sections in which Harry discusses the Occupy movement with his students and visits the activists’ Toronto encampment. Gillmor’s keen eye and savage humour work best when anchored to Harry’s manic consciousness rather than when splayed out on a wider social canvas. Luckily for readers, the bulk of Mount Pleasant clings tenaciously to an insider’s view of Harry’s – and his generation’s – downward spiral. It’s a scary place to be, but we’d better get used to it.