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The Garneau Block

by Todd Babiak

Edmonton – we know what it isn’t, so what is it? It’s not Sin City, Fun City, Naked City, or the Motor City; it isn’t a city of gold, angels, or light. There’s the oil thing, sure, but Edmonton and the petroleum industry have never produced a defining image or a mighty myth the public can grab hold of. There’s hockey, sometimes, and the Gretzky factor, but the jersey has been retired. It’s plain that Edmonton needs a bard, a chronicler, or at the very least – considering what a postmodern burg Edmonton is – a kind of literary blogger.

Enter Todd Babiak, and his serial novel The Garneau Block, which ran in the Edmonton Journal in 2005. Garneau’s novel – his second, after 2000’s Choke Hold – is cleanly written, inventive, fast-moving, stuffed with zingers about everything from Satanists to cellphone ringtones, extremely affectionate toward its nutty cast of players, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny (in the snort-of-recognition sense) – in other words, it has all the qualities needed to keep casual readers onboard.

In 95 bite-sized chapters, we come to know and love the residents of a normal, not-too-upscale group of Edmonton bungalows – the titular block – situated next to the university. There’s the pregnant 30-year-old who lives in her parents’ basement and works in a travel agency. The mysterious Indo-Canadian guy and his briefcase. The married philosophy professor with a lech for other women and an obsession with death. The abandoned house where police executed a crazed husband who was holding his family hostage. The politically mismatched parents – him a Ralph Klein-type rightie, her a Maude Barlow-type leftie. And, of course, there is a buffalo-headed apparition. When they all get together to battle a planned redevelopment of the area, well – stuff happens.

Not everyone will like this book. It is whimsical, which is death for the highbrow crowd but catnip for those who love, say, The Vinyl Cafe. It’s also uneven, which must be a hazard of the genre: sometimes the characters act improbably, and at other times their thoughts and actions are dazzlingly right (the status-conscious Tory dog owner is particularly good). Babiak’s highest achievement, though, lies in introducing us to the motley charms of the people and the city, whether they be bohemians who shop at Value Village or grandees who dine on bison with blueberry sauce at the Hardware Grill. If there really are a million stories in Champion City, let this one be the first.