Daniel Allen Cox’s fourth novel, Mouthquake, is his most assured and accomplished to date. It opens on an anonymous young boy in Montreal who speaks with a stutter, conceives of himself as a German shepherd, and comes of age uniquely attuned to how the world around him sounds.
The first segment is named “Antonio,” after a giant homeless man redolent of garlic who takes the young protagonist under his wing. “The lines of his face were contoured with the soot of bus exhaust. … He moved with the grace of a snow bank. … When he patted my toque, it felt like I was being bashed by a warm, raw steak.” Anyone who lived in Montreal in the 1980s and ’90s, as I did, will recognize the man on whom Cox likely modelled this character. There is a tenderness between man and boy that others – especially the local police – find concerning.
“Nobody wanted to sit beside me,” our narrator remarks about his experience at school. “I had the stink of a kid with a past. … I guess word got around. Although even if it had happened, it didn’t happen how they say it did.” The “it” refers to a blurry, barely remembered trauma that may or may not have caused the boy’s stutter to emerge.
The second section, called “Eric,” moves through the early 1990s of West Island grunge-era apathy, focusing on the Plateau area of downtown Montreal where all the freaks and outcasts gathered in cheap apartments and formed ad hoc families.
Cox unfolds his story in an almost hallucinatory way – the finely tuned, hypnotic sentences tumbling along through sensory impressions. Our narrator meets and falls in love with Eric, whose story about his deafness proves to be every bit as imaginative and evasive as that of our narrator’s troubled history with speech.
The relationship between Eric and the narrator is tender and restorative; this is where the novel shifts from a beautiful experimental tangle to a more straightforward meditation on memory and desire. One notable segment involves a carefully curated humiliation sex scene during which the partners discuss the boundaries for their role play; anyone who has spent time talking about consent culture will find the dialogue in this scene snaps with a humorous familiarity.
For its ability to capture the rough, street-level beauty of Montreal in the 1970s and ’80s, Mouthquake belongs on the shelf next to Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals. That said, Cox displays a playful and poetic edge all his own. “The 1970s were all about strange men talking to little kids on the street,” Cox writes in a representative moment. “These were adults that none of the other adults saw. Our imaginary friends, if you will.” Mouthquake is a moving, poetic ride that defies expectation but keeps the reader grounded for its duration.