It begins very simply. “The waitress was new here.”
Pierre is not new; he has been the barman for years and years and years. When he watches the new waitress approach, it’s the perspective of a seasoned worker in the restaurant industry.
“She came out of the underpass and hurried down the sidewalk, very business like, keeping to herself, as tall as me even in flat-heeled shoes. Maybe forty years old? That’s not the kind of thing you can ask a lady.”
You can get a glimpse of Pierre in this brief passage. You understand that he has a clear sense of what should, and what should not happen, in the cafe, and in life.
And the reason that the new waitress is working today? That’s because something that should NOT have happened has, indeed, happened.
But the reader doesn’t know that yet. The reader is, at first, like Pierre, caught up in the business of it. (And I do love novels about working life.)
“My bar was full from end to end, and, as happens from time to time, depending on the month and the year, I felt a big wave of fatigue washing over me, sweat was trickling down my temples because of the heat from the kitchen.”
Pierre is not as young as he used to be. This, too, is something that is clear at the beginning of the story, but his reasons for reflecting on his experience aren’t yet clear.
“All that to be served chop-chop, with all these people lined up in front of me at the bar, I don’t really know them but I’ve been serving them day after day for a good thirty years.”
But the tension in the story is the quiet sort. This is not a grand mystery.
Most of what happens has less to do with plates and glasses than what is happening in Pierre’s mind, what he is realizing about the lives of the people around him (especially his boss’s life) and about his own life.
“After all these years as a barman, everyone I know’s in my own line of work. My friend Roger, my friend Pierrot, and then the others. They come and go, for the most part. Let the world turn around us, beyond our spotless bars, in the end every day will be carefully wiped away to make room for the next.”
How Pierre’s world turns around: at the beginning of this novel, it turns around the arrival of a new waitress. But she is simply the herald of other news.
And, as disruptive as one aspect of this news may seem to be, it is but one disruption in a lifetime of each day being wiped away to make room for the next.
Ironically, I did not read the novel’s epigraph (from Pierre Morhange) until after I had finished reading Pierre’s story, but it beautifully captures both the same-ness of this kind of daily work, and those unexpectedly still moments which lead us to reconsider the choices that we make across a lifetime:
“Oh yes! I hated Sunday,
Because that’s the day when I think
And count the days past and to come.”
When I was reading the first section of Adam Gopnik’s Winter earlier this week, this was one of many passages that had me “aha-ing”.
It made me think of the wonder that is Billy Collins, whose poetry is the sort that you can recommend to any reader and rest easy, knowing that they will love it too.
“We tend to underrate chattiness in poets because we like sublime lyricism or melodramatic confession,” Gopnik writes, “but the ability to write a conversational poem (to give it a more dignified name), and to make it sound like conversation while still looking like a poem, is one of the rarest poetic gifts.”
A “conversational” poem does sound more dignified than a “chatty” poem, but, call it what you will, the idea is the perfect introduction for Tanya Davis’ debut collection.
They certainly do look like poems, with all the usual sorts of line breaks and verses.
But they also really do sound as though she is simply speaking to you from a park bench, or across a cafe or kitchen table.
These are wholly accessible works about what it means to be alive, to question your place in the world, to wonder whether there isn’t a way of being that would make you feel better at the end of the day, to test the idea of being someone other than the person that the people around you expect you to be.
Even if you don’t normally read poetry, you might find yourself “aha-ing” about this collection.
You might want to give it a try too.
Chances are that Ginger will have your reader’s back up in mere moments.
Although he considers himself good with people, he’s not everybody’s idea of a charmer.
“Women were peculiar cuss. They had nervous troubles men knew nothing about. Ah, she had been acting very peculiar this last while, cold and fed up and so on. That was nervous troubles, he was sure. If you read medical books, it was all explained in there. So, leave her be. She’d come around.”
That alone might put you off.
And he’s pretty demanding. He knows how he likes his eggs and he has very clear ideas about how he should be treated, in his home and in the world.
The unfortunate part of the story (for Ginger, anyway) is that the world is not always in agreement.
You see, Ginger is pretty much out-of-work and what’s left of his savings, well, that’s best not discussed yet.
Particularly because there are folks much closer to the story who don’t yet know the truth of that situation. (I’d feel terrible if it got back to them before Ginger has a chance to come clean.)
Not that it would be entirely a surprise.
“Isn’t the job you’re in always a burden to you, isn’t it always no good, according to you? And isn’t there always a crock of gold waiting for you in the next job you’re going to get? Ginger, will you never learn anything? Will you never face the facts?”
Ah, but she is a peculiar cuss you’ll remember. And the reason that you’re told that is because the story is rooted in Ginger’s perspective. You’re right there with him.
Most of the time you’re not thrilled with that arrangement, for as I said he is not easy company, but there are definitely moments in which you realize that there is a fragility to his character that the peculiar cuss and other folks around him don’t see.
“In a weak moment, he felt the tears come: she did not love him; she hated him and why shouldn’t she, rotten with drink, he was, great drunken lump, J.F. Coffey, journalist, plootered his first night on the job. Ah God! He hated this great lump, blowing into his thick red moustache, self-pitying fool….”
(And, there’s also the matter of his relationship with Michel, a small boy who lives in the building, a relationship which stands in stark contrast to Ginger’s relationship with his own daughter.)
Beyond the complexity of Ginger’s character, and the intricate ways in which Brian Moore hooks the reader’s empathy despite the ever-present desire to want to smack/strangle/snub this bluster of a man, the novel’s setting is also worthy of note.
“It amused him now to think that before he came out here, he had expected Montreal would be a sort of Frenchy place. French my foot: it was a cross between America and Russia.”
In his search for work, later in his thankless and stressful position as a copy-editor, Ginger gets to know the city in ways that he likely wouldn’t have wanted to. But there he is.
“Snow, dead and thick and white, shaded the arms of the tree opposite; wedged itself in clefts of branches; cake-iced the roofs of houses across the street. The city was quiet, its traffic noises muted by the snowfall.”
Brian Moore is an author whose works have too-long sat on my shelves; I plucked this one off, in conjunction with Reader of the Stack, who also found the egg scene very irritating, and have resolved that it is only the first of many Brian Moore reads to come.
The Luck of Ginger Coffey counts towards the Canadian Book Challenge; The Waitress Was New counts towards the Foodie’s Reading Challenge; and, Tanya Davis’ collection counts towards the LGBTQ Reading Challenge.
And how is your challenge reading coming along?
Have you read any of these?