Quill and Quire


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by François Gravel; Sheila Fischman; trans.

The wise Andy Warhol once said that the surest sign that one is a member of the bourgeoisie is a fear of appearing to be a member of the bourgeoisie.

Montreal writer and teacher François Gravel’s Ostend is a coming-of-age novel, combining Great Expectations,/I> with The Wonder Years in an analysis of the boomer shape shift from revolutionary to reactionary. The story is compelling, in part because it has become so recognizable; through Gravel’s characters we are reacquainted with all the watershed moments that the sixties and early seventies seem to have had in great abundance.

Where were you when Kennedy was killed, Pierre Laporte kidnapped, or John Lennon shot? These are the types of questions that Gravel’s characters are growing up through. Gravel is gifted at moving things along with a storyteller’s soft hand for persuasive correspondences, coincidence, and dreaded moments. The first half of Ostend is an exciting read that captures both the events of the era and the chaotic way in which those events disillusioned and were mythologized by those who witnessed them. The second half of the novel drags a little as Gravel’s narrator, Jean François Kelly, and his friends become less likable, and the heady days start turning into headaches. With admirable honesty and hand-wringing insight, Gravel traces Jean François’ vulgar Marxism and his discrepant world view, which ultimately serve to march him straight into an inevitable yuppie’s materialism.

Gravel rewrites the sellout as a series of dialectical steps, determined to a large extent by François’ misreading of technical philosophy. This slippery slope is wonderfully told in the fumbling tongue of the novel’s Mrs. Malaprop, Louise, a walking breach into other character’s underexamined native truths, who thinks reactionary is a synonym for revolutionary and that context and pretext have a kind of equal meaning. To his credit, Gravel makes his narrator a complex and difficult person to like, telling an exhilarating and important story.


Reviewer: Tony Burgess

Publisher: Cormorant Books


Price: $18.95

Page Count: 306 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-920953-93-X

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1996-10

Categories: Fiction: Novels