Reviewed by Aaron Kreuter
For Harry Salter, the main character in Don Gillmor’s new novel, Mount Pleasant, financial debt has broken out of its abstract realm and taken on real, audible qualities. He hears it as a loud hum, as a siren’s screech, as a “roaring in his ears, an insistent martial sound that arrived in waves.” For Harry, an untenured political science professor used to the upper-middle-class life he lives with his wife and son in Toronto, relieving his debt has become his mission, his goal, his quest. However, when his wealthy money-manager father Dale dies, and it turns out the millions Harry was expecting are not coming his way, Harry’s only viable chance of getting out of debt vanishes.
The world Harry inhabits is a world of dinner parties, large houses, and larger bank accounts—or so Harry thought. When Dale’s will gets read, and Harry discovers he’s only been left a few thousand dollars, he embarks to discover what, exactly, happened to Dale’s money. Is it possible he blew it all in his end-of-life dementia? Could someone in Dale’s money-managing firm, the ruthless Press Lunden, the prostitute-frequenting Dick Ebbets, have stolen it? What, if anything, does his mother, recently moved out of her Rosedale mansion and into a much smaller apartment backing onto the novel’s eponymous cemetery, know about it? With Dale’s latest peroxide-haired girlfriend on Harry’s case, with his debt getting louder and louder, Harry enters into a world of back-stabbing, immorality, and financial scandal to find an answer to these questions.
Even though, as the novel progresses, it turns more and more into a Raymond Chandleresque mystery, complete with conspiracy, dead bodies in car trunks, and fourth-quarter eloquent confessions, Mount Pleasant is still a novel of social critique. In our current moment, the financial world run amok, the middle-class shrinking, materialism and resource depletion at all-time highs, we need a voice like Harry’s—educated, insightful, biting, cynical—to show us its incongruities, its paradoxes. Like all great characters, Harry is far from perfect: his hilarious judgments usually fall hardest on himself, like when he invests in a company that bottles and sells icebergs that float on international waters. “For Harry to thrive,” he thinks, “the world had to fail. But it was already failing. He wasn’t contributing to its collapse, or even profiteering. He was seeing the world for what it was—a series of bad bets made by mankind.”
The novel spends significant time untangling the current world of high finance and banking free-for-all, as well as critiquing current trends counter to the more-or-less completely corrupt world of money, including the Occupy movement, which Harry and his students visit on a school trip. The strongest satire, however, is reserved for the market. As one of Dale’s old friends puts it to Harry: “The shareholder is god and the shareholder is an idiot …. and we live in this splendid paradox. Generally, Harry, we’re dealing with two things: shit no one understands, and shit everyone understands.”
As we follow Harry’s attempts to unravel the complex financial knot of Dale’s missing money, we also get to know Harry’s family and friends. There’s Gladys, Harry’s wife, who watches with increasing scepticism as Harry spends more of his time (and more of their dwindling money) on the hunt for Dale’s missing millions. There’s Harry’s sister Erin, who married into money and so has no stake in Harry’s search for answers. There’s Ben, Harry and Gladys’ son, a quiet, unassuming university student until he starts dating the radical, outspoken, manifesto-writing Sarah, who blames men like Harry for all of society’s ills (even with the announcement of their engagement, Ben and Sarah never become more than peripheral characters). There’s Felicia, Harry’s mother, who recently moved out of Rosedale, dropped all of her old friends, and is living in near-seclusion, casually admitting old affairs to Harry by saying things like, “Ruthless man. I slept with him, but that was when I was married.”
And of course, there’s Harry himself. Harry gives lectures on Revolutionary Toronto (a nice way of placing the current situation within a historical context, though during these detours into history Gillmor’s training as a journalist breaks through the otherwise consistent narrative voice), is hyperaware of the cost and quality of wine, and does all he can to maintain his family’s status-quo (the last thing he wants to do is sell his house, which seems more and more likely). Harry muses hilariously on middle age, colonoscopies, the real estate market (Harry and Gladys bought their house on the day the market peaked), the elevated reverence of local butchers to the detriment of once-revered professors, his “anaemic” retirement fund, the general unfairness of life, anything and everything that his roving mind lands on, usually seen through the constant drone of his debt.
The city of Toronto has a major role in the novel as well. The areas of the city Harry frequents, especially the upper-class Rosedale, where he grew up and where, until recently, his mother lived, are the sites of constant reflection on the interconnections of money and urban geography. A prime example of this is Harry’s grandfather, who made a fortune when the farmland he bought for pennies above the city suddenly exploded in value when Toronto expanded in the early twentieth century. And here’s Harry ruminating on the drive to his mother’s mansion through the quiet Rosedale streets: “He had grown up here, surrounded by the nation’s bankers, brokers, politicians, fixers, touts, lawyers, industrialists and heirs, a fountain of money that shot out of the ground, and in the gush of afterbirth came the nannies and cooks and gardeners who made multiculturalism such a success.” Harry sees himself in the same situation as his beloved city, “a victim of decreasing budgets and poor planning, bewildered by the future.”
Don Gillmor might just be our own toned-down, Canadian Don DeLillo. The brilliant, prophetic statements that litter a DeLillo novel here have their Canadian counterpart: “you work with this stuff for thirty-one years, but you never actually see it. It exists in the fevered minds of a million peasants praying for a miracle. It sits in our hard drives. We watch it grow. Sometimes we watch it die …. our mothers gave us life, but it is money, and money alone, that preserves it.” For all its talk of convoluted financial manoeuvres, its greedy money managers and market jargon, in the end the novel shows that no matter how much importance Harry, Dale, Gladys, and Felica puts on money, no matter how much of it they accrue or owe or want, they will end up at the mercy of the two things that are as old as time itself: sex and death.
(Random House Canada / 290 pgs / March 2013 / CDN$29.95 in hardcover)