The son of two marginally successful hot dog vendeurs in the Montreal suburb of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Toby Ménard is the perfect gentleman. So perfect, in fact, that his face can be seen smiling down from billboards across the city, inviting all and sundry to try a Hermès pocket square on for size. Yes, Toby has it all: a popular television show concerning the lost art of male etiquette, a girlfriend who is the picture of urbane sophistication, a pimped out condo, and a closet full of bespoke suits. Yet for all his outward success, Toby has an impressive list of emotional hang-ups and insecurities – all of which are presented in the first chapter of Todd Babiak’s fourth novel, Toby: A Man.
Like The Garneau Block, Babiak’s 2006 satire on modern life in oil-rich Edmonton (which was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), Toby is a vivid, humorous portrait of Canadians navigating the mores of our culture in a subtle, self-effacing (in other words, archetypically Canadian) fashion. This time, however, Babiak has shifted his focus from Alberta to the middle-class, Anglo suburbs of Montreal’s West Island, giving him the opportunity to explore facets of Canadianness untouched in his previous novels: the gulf between English and French Canada, and between Anglo residents of Quebec and pûres laines. These cultural clashes add depth and complexity to an already compelling cast of characters.
When the novel begins, Toby is driving to his parents’ house after a dismal meeting of the Benjamin Disraeli Society, a gentleman’s association he founded. He arrives to find the family Oldsmobile parked in the driveway, enveloped in flames. His father, Edward, is sitting stoically in the driver’s seat. Toby hesitates. He knows instinctively that he must pull his father out of the burning vehicle, but in his mind he lists all the reasons why doing so would be a bad idea (he still bears the scars from the time he put his hand on a red-hot element; movies have taught him that burning cars always blow up; he doesn’t want to die; and so on). Toby phones 911 and starts to run away. As he’s running, Edward lurches out of the Oldsmobile and falls to the grass. It’s an emblematic moment, a catalyst Babiak employs to illustrate the self-imposed division between Toby’s sophisticated Montreal persona and his nondescript past. It’s at this point that you know Toby’s life is going to change.
And change it does. Toby loses his job as a result of an interview with an MP candidate so deliciously cringe-inducing that it could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of Ricky Gervais. He breaks up with his girlfriend the same day and is soon living at his parents’ house, his profligate, hand-to-mouth lifestyle having left him with no financial cushion. At first, he sees the return home as a stopgap until he lands a better gig in Toronto or New York. But as time passes, he becomes increasingly entwined in the quotidian life of Dollard-des-Ormeaux.
It’s during this period that Babiak really tests his characters, forcing them to break out of their prescribed roles. Toby’s transition from obnoxious dilettante to upstanding hero is completely seamless and one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Babiak makes a concerted effort to ensure that this transformation is as gradual as possible, employing a series of events that transpire over the course of several months. The unravelling of Toby’s family has the same slow burn. Things don’t get progressively worse in the little bungalow; they oscillate between heart wrenching crises and ridiculous situations. Babiak exploits the family dynamic in the same way as Woody Allen.
Montreal and Dollard-des-Ormeaux are not only representative of Toby’s past and his future, they are tied to his fear of failure and his guilt over sacrificing his family heritage for fame. (When he became the Montreal city hall reporter, Toby was advised to “Latin up” his family name, Mushinsky, which he dropped in favour of the innocuous Ménard.) The cultural tension in the novel is quiet but ubiquitous. When Toby visits a social worker to assess his chances at adoption, he pleads with the woman, saying, “He will always go to French schools, wherever we live. I am Québécois too.” His greatest concern is that the government will not give a francophone child to a man with a “Slavic-sounding surname.”
Babiak steers clear of any saccharine folksiness or forced mythologizing, opting instead for a candid take on Toby’s relation to society at large. The narrative trajectory allows Babiak to position Toby alternately in the thick of things and on the periphery – whether in his career, his family, or his hometown. His upwardly mobile aspirations mean that he cannot escape what he perceives as the stigma of his hometown, despite his success in cosmopolitan Montreal.
Which is, the novel suggests, how a lot of ambitious Canadians feel about their country: they love it, but feel that it will never give them the opportunities they might find south of the 49th parallel. Toby, Babiak writes, is “a Canadian who loves his country but hates himself just a little for living in it.” In Babiak’s hands, it’s a subtle point, but one Toby must understand if he is to become a man.