You can imagine Harry Salter, the main character in Don Gillmor’s second novel, nodding along with Murray.
Murray is actually a character in an Alice Munro story, looking back at his much-changed life, but the story is familiar.
“Does it deserve to be called a classic? ‘My great-grandfather got the business going. My grandfather established it in all its glory. My father preserved it. And I lost it.'”
Not that Harry comes from Old Money, but Harry knows something about losing. Or, at least, something about being on the verge of losing.
And not just losing a business, losing money. But losing life itself. The cover, in fact, places the viewer at the bottom of a grave.
The title borrows the name of an impressive cemetery in Toronto which, ironically, is also the name of a street in an upscale neighbourhood in the city; Harry knows both areas well.
The premise of the story is simple: Harry’s father has died and Harry has expected an inheritance. But Harry soon realizes that much of his understanding of the world, of the economy in particular, is out-of-date.
“Electronic fortunes rode on minor blips from the yen or the euro, distress signals that rose from Wall Street and zipped through ten million hard drives like tracer bullets and lit the battlefield as thieves crawled away with gold or growth or emerging markets.”
Money isn’t so much about gold and bills, guarded by dragons and hoarded by the likes of Scrooge McDuck, anymore, as it is about virtual currency. But Harry struggles to understand that shift.
“The binary commands sluiced through the world’s exchanges, and some of that money charging through the ether belonged to his father, belonged to Harry. He was sure of it.”
And even harder to accept is the fact that much of what he had assumed to be true about his father’s life and value(s) is now shifting as well. And this, in turn, forces significant shifts in Harry’s own life.
An industry insider tries to explain”
“’You know, Harry,’ Dick said, ‘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.'”
Growth and consumption, death and decay: Mount Pleasant is filled with them, sometimes overtly, sometimes in symbolism and imagery.
“Few things are as elemental as the colon. You consume, you process, you excrete; this is the essential biology of the living. Whatever else you do is up to you.”
A heron is stabbing frogs with his bill, men gather around the carcass of a dear near the ravines, dreams descend like carrion birds, Christmas approaches with its expectations and woes, and through it all, Harry asks:
“What binds us now? Debt, all of us chained to the same rock, our livers being delicately gnawed at eighteen percent compounded annually.”
Harry’s debt is remarkable in that it takes on an auditory quality, a “buzzing that usually remained in the background though rarely went away”.
It is like a dull white noise, a dentist’s drill, a car engine, insects, an air conditioner, and “keening at a Serbian funeral”, a “private din”.
It is also the inspiration for such catchy phrases as this: “Debt was his mistress, the dirty siren who clawed his back.”
Harry is, however, as often lying on his back, for instance in his favourite yoga pose (the corpse pose). There is a clear sense of futility throughout the narrative, even in such details.
Perhaps another narrator would have found hope in his son, but Harry sees something else:
“Any child could grow up to be prime minister, but not every adolescent. By the time they got to Ben’s age, only a handful truly had a shot. This was life’s essence – a narrowing of possibilities until the final choice: another breath on the respirator or endless sleep.”
Harry sees this sense of restriction and suffocation everywhere around him.
“Harry looked out along a low swale dotted with stone spires and Celtic crosses. The city’s builders contained beneath five feet of fertile soil. Tens of thousands who had dreamed in technicolour. Each one added singly to this heap, carted north after solemn prayer and laid down amid a crows of distracted friends. The failure was palpable, an aroma that lifted out of the ground in spring, the rot of near-greatness, the essence of mortality.”
The city’s builders are buried one at a time, but they often lie next to their spouses in that fertile soil. It seems that the possibilities for Harry’s marriage to Gladys are also narrowing towards endless sleep as well.
“She saw marriage as a kind of war – you go out and have affairs and inflict pain on one another and don’t speak for weeks at a time, but at the end, you’re both veterans of the same battlefield. There’s a camaraderie. That’s what unites you: that pain, those wounds, your shared hell.”
The battlefield is the land of electronic fortunes in the early pages of the novel (see the first quote) but the conflict extends to the marriage bed as readers turn the pages of Harry’s life.
He asks: “Who could trace the incremental losses of the last twenty-five years, the tiny defeats, the lengthening silences? What forensic accountant could sift through all that and show them the moment their marriage had tipped into the red?”
Although Harry is at the core of Don Gillmor’s novel, his wife Gladys is succinctly sketched; she is “an organized woman, admirably, unbearably”. Readers immediately understand Harry’s conflict.
Stylistically, Mount Pleasant is straightforward; the author refers to this short, linear, present-day narrative that he began working on as a work of contrast to his previous novel Kanata, in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC here.
Yet some of the descriptions are surprisingly vivid, like that of August Sampson, money-man, whose “mournful face had been undone by gravity, his tuberous nose and surplus cheeks pulled south”.
Readers observe that August’s “parts were shrinking at variable rates, giving him a mismatched look. His ears had expanded brilliantly.” And, not only is the description lush, but it also embodies the theme of expansion and decay.
The descriptions of Toronto are particularly evocative, from Felicia’s apartment building on a cul de sac near St. Clair which backs onto the cemetery via a wire gate, to St. James Park and the Occupy Toronto movment, from the Bloor Viaduct to Rosedale, from the ravines to Mt Pleasant Cemetery (particularly the graves of Gould, Eaton and Simpson).
In Munro’s stories, the distinction is between ‘town’ and ‘country’ and many characters inhabit the space between; in Don Gillmor’s novel, the distinction is between cash that you can crumple in your hands and cash that exists only in the ether, and Harry is caught in the space between.
In her interview with the author, Shelagh Rogers refers to Margaret Atwood’s Payback. Litter, smoking, seatbelts: so much has changed, she wonders, can we change the paradigm of debt in this generation?
Harry answers: “Who is content to live in the world they can afford?”