In the ominous opening pages of Yves Beauchemin’s new tome, the moon looks “as if it had been dipped in blood,” which matches the titular protagonist’s “shock of gorgeous red hair that gave him the appearance of a mischievous little angel fallen from heaven.” The bad moon rising is something of a red herring, however, and that crimson mane is never again mentioned. Similarly, the so-called Monster of Maniwaki, rumoured to be roaming at large, is just a moose that, as it happens, is already dead and rotting in a wood. Misfortunes indeed await Jerome Lupien, a twentysomething Montrealer, but they are of a less sinister variety than these portents suggest. Over the course of the novel, Jerome will get ripped off and hoodwinked, and will in turn lie, cheat, vandalize, and sabotage.
A lot of stuff happens in The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien and all of it takes a long time. Set in the early 2000s – or some parallel version of the early 2000s where Twitter already exists – the novel plies its protagonist with one predicament after another, all of them accruing to what the title implies will be an (unsentimental) education. But Jerome doesn’t learn much, unless we count the strengthening of his capacity for revenge or the bolstering of his confidence with women who consistently fall for him, despite his dearth of charisma conveyed on the page. A hotel receptionist, a nutritionist and single mother, Quebec’s minister of culture: all the ladies love Jerome, a callous, petty, self-absorbed emotional coward with no discernable ambitions save the securing of money and status. Of course, assigning such attributes to a protagonist doesn’t in itself make for bad fiction. Alas, Jerome is also not especially interesting.
Fed up with bad breaks and wintry slush, our hapless hero escapes to a five-star resort in Varadero where he winds up braining one of the locals who is apparently in the act of mugging Felix, another visitor from Montreal. The only son of the resort’s wealthy proprietors, Felix is even more of a spoiled brat than Jerome. Felix’s mom is so grateful to Jerome for rescuing her son from supposedly grave danger that she invites him to dinner, delivers a sex worker to his room, and, once he is back in Canada, rewards him with a hazily defined but high-paying gig working for her husband. Before this, Jerome had been unemployed. His parents worried he was turning into a bohemian, though it’s hard to imagine anything less bohemian than escaping to a five-star resort in Varadero. In any case, the job proves increasingly fraught and everyone has a secret to protect, a card to play, or a nefarious scheme to execute.
Beauchemin’s prose is amiable and fluid. It’s only as the novel chugs along that it gradually reveals itself as bloated with exposition, superfluous interior monologue, and indiscriminate attention to details regarding, say, the likelihood of finding a parking spot on a given Montreal street. With its abundance of minutiae and build-up, the book adopts a very 19th-century approach. Balzac, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky – referenced multiple times – are clearly models for Beauchemin. But to what end? Events are described as they occur, only to be recounted later with no new revelation or shift in perspective. Every time Jerome updates his buddy Charlie on his activities, impact is dulled and momentum stalled.
None of this is helped by Wayne Grady’s translation, though it’s difficult to parse what constitutes awkward writing as opposed to awkward translation. At one point Jerome suffers “a metaphysical panic attack.” How this differs from a non-metaphysical panic attack is anybody’s guess. Beauchemin seems to favour familiar figures of speech over quirky ones, but what are we to make of clumsy phrasing such as “made more love than a colony of rabbits”? Or non-sequitur exchanges like this one: “I stopped shitting my diapers a long time ago.” “Yeah? But what about pissing?” Is this funnier in French?
While most of the humour here falls flat, good guffaws are to be had over the absurd monikers assigned to fictional Canadian politicians, such as Prime Minister Sydney Westwind and Heritage Minister Chuckly Colslaw. It must be said that Beauchemin’s observations on politics and business are far more acute then those applied to human nature.
Beauchemin is prolific and very successful, a giant in Québécois francophone literature. With The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien and his recent Charles the Bold trilogy, he aspires to vast canvases, sprawling studies in social mores and political machinations funneled through the picaresque journeys of young men with healthy sexual appetites. But is there no one extant who might rigorously challenge his more excessive tendencies? Beauchemin may be in his 70s, but no author is ever too old or enshrined to expand his own education.