Monday, May 6, 2013

Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant
Don Gillmor

Toronto is the city that every Canadian loves to hate, so it is a brave gamble for Don Gillmor to build his novel Mount Pleasant around a character meant to embody Hogtown. Harry Salter, former journalist turned history professor, tries to be a wry observer of life in the big city. His flaws often get in the way of his wisdom, however, and he becomes more of a stumbling, unsure baby boomer in decline than Mr. Toronto. Harry’s lifespan follows the shift from old-money Protestant Toronto to the mega-city of today. If you ever wondered what secrets lurk in those glorious Rosedale homes that gracefully carpet the ravines just above Bloor, I’m not sure that Harry is your best guide. He seems to have missed out on glory himself, and his investigative obsession with both his father’s and grandfather’s success stories only reveals tales of heartache and decline.

While Harry falls short of lovable, he does proceed to provide a thoughtful tour of Toronto’s historical roots. As Gillmor connects tales of W. L. Mackenzie’s scruples of long ago to the Occupy movement in St. James Park, he proves himself to be a beautifully talented novelist. When Mount Pleasant is the tale of a man who understands what was and is able to ponder what will be, the reader is happy to go along for the ride. You are more likely to want out of the cab when Gillmor goes back to pushing Harry in the dirt. Who could cheer for the only man not to profit from the many Toronto real estate booms? Could you care for the fellow who had a Bay Street father who always drove a Cadillac but left an inheritance worth less than the price of a used Camry?

Mount Pleasant regularly redeems itself by surrounding sad-sack Harry with a parade of fascinating figures. You want more of Harry’s stylish but bitter-tongued mother, his cynical sister, and his suffering wife. Gillmor gives gusto to even briefly glimpsed characters: the homeless demander who smears mustard on a passerby’s jacket, celebrity ghosts in the Mount Pleasant cemetery, and even Harry’s colon as it wisecracks through his colonoscopy. Every time Harry’s phone rings, Toronto comes to life.

A news item skated before my eyes recently. It quoted a survey claiming that many Canadians say their favourite hockey team is whoever is playing against Toronto. Ouch. It is no wonder Harry doesn’t sail above the city that Gillmor is trying to capture. As the rising condos limit his horizons, they only hide him from a nation that can’t stand him. You admire Don Gillmor for investing the creative energy into creating a true Toronto character. However, in the list of thankless tasks, it may rank just below enhancing the comedy talents of Stephen Harper. I see a Mount Pleasant sequel devoted to those happy to slash Harry around the ankles.

- Mark Kennedy

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