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The Alley Cat by Yves Beauchemin; translated by Sheila Fischman (Holt: $17.95; 450 pp.)

November 09, 1986|Judith Freeman | Freeman is working on a book of short stories. and

There's a mean vein running down the center of this book, a subterranean streak of misanthropy, which is presumably viewed by the author as allowable, or indiscernible, because a coat of humor is supposed to cover everything in this farcical novel set in Montreal.

But the unpleasantness is revealed when scraped by certain phrases. Someone who decides to change jobs tells his boss, "Find yourself another nigger"; elsewhere an adoption of a child is OK "as long as it's not a little nigger." A waitress has "a jiggling of cellulite that pegged her past 40," and another possesses a "vivid menstrual imagination." Americans come in for repeated shots as purveyors of crassness, certainly a hackneyed complaint. After a while, one wonders, where does all this mean-spiritedness come from?

Author Yves Beauchemin's first novel won a prize for literature in his native Quebec. "The Alley Cat," his second, was originally published in French in 1981, sold more than 1 million copies in Canada and in European translations, and has been made into a feature film and a miniseries. With this impressive record behind it, the novel now appears in English in an able translation by Sheila Fischman.

It's hard to see what all the fuss is about, let alone accept the misanthropic tone as funny, unless you grant the possibility that the sensibilities of national groups differ considerably, especially when it comes to humor, which may account for why the French loved Jerry Lewis in a way we Americans never did.

The hero, 26-year-old Florent Boissonneault, whose dream is to own a restaurant, aids an accident victim at the opening of the novel, and his good deed is observed by an elderly eccentric, Egon Ratablavasky. Seemingly because he admires the young man's character so much, Ratablavasky, who is also known as Old Rat or The Alley Cat, decides to become Florent's benefactor and enables him to buy his dream restaurant. Florent and his wife, Elise, although perplexed by the old man's motives, accept his generosity and happily go about setting up their eatery. No sooner do they get things going than Ratablavasky does a turnabout and causes them to lose the restaurant. The rest of the story--and it's considerably long and involved, including hit men, money-making schemes, a decline into poverty--centers on Florent's attempt to revenge Old Rat, and an illogical and uncomprehensible attempt by Ratablavasky to effect some sort of reconciliation.

The term oxymoronic applies to this action, which is a combination of contradictory and incongruous elements: Ratablavasky is cruelly kind to Florent, first enabling him to realize his dream and then causing him to lose it. He is passed off as both tempter and redeemer. The reason for Ratablavasky's behavior? "I was wanting to have some fun with your goals in this life," he explains to Florent, who he pesters to death with philosophical lectures, as if he is supposed to embody metaphysical truths and be the instrument of Florent's moral reckoning. Here is Ratablavasky on life: "It is the universe . . . that molds men's acts. Those laws are acting harder than you, than I, than all humanity . . . and what are those laws? All is good. All is bad. And when the good and the bad are united . . . then you have Perfection, for you have complete Life." You also have complete nonsense.

The publisher calls this novel a "modern-day fairy tale," but I found it a cartoon. It has the cartoon's slam-bam pace; events in it shove one another forward like unruly schoolchildren.

There's a rich aunt living in a splendid mansion in Florida who comes to their rescue, an errant, alcoholic child who is nevertheless cute as a button, and minor villains with Dickensian names like Slipskin, Mr. Pufferbug and a gynecologist named Fingerton. Breakfast the cat and Virtue the dog are the least prettified creations.

If it worked on the level of farce, everything might be OK, but it doesn't. Aspiring to more, the book attempts to be comic and disturbing, but the plot is played out like a game of tick-tack-toe, with comic and disturbing filling in the squares and canceling each other out so that nobody wins. The death that ends the book is so incredible it seems like more high jinks. You expect the corpse to resurrect as if it were all a joke, so sudden, and maudlin, is the turn. But the corpse stays put. The only thing that levitates is your disappointment that there isn't a better payoff after so much tantalizing hokum about temptation and redemption.

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