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Part of him Always at Work
It's party time in Montreal, a hot summer Saturday night in the Plateau Mont Royal, and a goodly number of Montreal's anglo writers have gathered to give a couple of their own a decent send-off. Spirits are generally high: yes, we are sad to see Charlie Foran and John Goddard leave but, hey, writers are a weasely lot, and the departure of these two stalwarts may actually open up some opportunities for the remainder of the pack.

A Latin beat pulsates in the living room, thedining table is groaning with trays of chicken and rice, but as at any self-respecting party, the kitchen is the hub of the scene. Knocking back shots of tequila, a clutch of men swap stories about the British novelist Martin Amis, who visited town earlier in the week on a tour promoting The Information. Snide proprietorial comparisons are made about lengths of interviews, tennis matches, and poker games with Amis.

Meanwhile, a couple of young women stand by the fridge, deeply engrossed in conversation. Kitty-corner from them across the room, the novelist David Homel, beer in hand, bends his curly head close to mine and lowers his booming voice. "Look at that woman," he says confidentially, indicating the taller member of the couple. "Her posture's quite astounding, don't you think? I mean, for a woman. The way she's holding that beer bottle and has her thumb hooked in her belt loop. I mean, that's a male thing, a kind of drugstore cowboy pose. It's so obvious. But consider the length of her hair and the way her top clings to her breasts.... It's amazing how she projects androgyny, it's amazing how her body tells two stories."

He turns towards me, full-face. "There are so many things to study in the world, I'm never going to run out of stuff to write about."

It's party time in Montreal, but David Homel is working nonetheless, just as hard, in a way, as he works in his small rented office on Saint Denis Street where I go to interview him a few days later. A beautiful summer day on the street that, perhaps above all others in Montreal, stands for Québécois nationalism, with a fleur-de-lys flag from next door actually flapping across Homel's window ("I get tired of it blowing in my face from time to time," he says wryly).

This bright, bare-bones room furnished with a couple of drafting tables (he has a bad back and knees, and can't sit for long), filing cabinets, and book shelves, its Kokoschka and Miro prints and air of controlled clutter is where David Homel has worked for nearly fifteen years, a transplanted American from Chicago perfectly at ease in his adopted city whose two languages he still speaks with a slight Yankee twang. Yet he moves back and forth across Montreal's basic linguistic and cultural divide as if it's no big deal. His novels appear in French translation rapidly after their launches in English; he is a frequent guest on Radio-Canada cultural programs, living proof that an anglo at home with French is courted as an asset.

A freelance journalist, teacher and literary translator, Homel has twice been shortlisted for the Governor-General's award for translation: in 1989 for Dany Laferrière's novel How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired and in 1994 for An Aroma of Coffee, also by Laferrière. In 1985, he plunged into fiction writing, and the raw talent displayed in his début novel, Electrical Storms (Random House, 1988) -a gritty coming-of-age tale that borrowed the Chicago of his adolescence in the 60s for a setting-won him a finalist's place in the Books in Canada/W.H. Smith First Novel contest in 1989. He took on a more exotic locale and grappled with larger themes in Rat Palms (HarperCollins, 1992), a road novel soaked in alcohol and set primarily in the American South. Sonya & Jack (HarperCollins), released last spring, is that important third book which can make or break a writer: spread his name beyond that of the lit/biz crowd to a mass readership.

Homel knows this better than I, although he is seemingly blasé about it. "The reviewers like my stuff but it doesn't sort of engage the Canadian imagination very much. Maybe it's too off centre. But I don't believe in complaining. No one's making me do this. And if I get sick of it, I'll do something else."

I don't think so. I think he'll continue writing. His books keep getting better and better and he has excellent writerly instincts. For instance, unlike many a novelist who might have started with the autobiographical material life had dealt him, Homel had the good sense to postpone mining the gold of family lore until he had acquired the maturity and experience to handle it. The result is Sonya & Jack, Homel's first explicitly Jewish novel and a heady blend of realism, fable, and novel of ideas that he offers up in the guise of a historical romance and that he has also described as a road novel which "leads through time and around the world, following a couple of lovers who just wanted to be on the right side of history."

The love story of Jack Gesser, "an intellectual watermelon vendor" and Russian immigrant, and Sonya Freedman, "a sexually free washerwoman" from Hungary, who abandon Depression-plagued Chicago for their dream of a worker's paradise in the Soviet Union and whose odyssey takes them to Haiti, Moscow, and Kazakhstan, is recounted by Michael Mefili, the son of Sonya, though not of Jack. Creating authenticity for such a baroque plot, whose basic premise is reverse immigration, was Homel's central challenge in writing the book.

Two veins throb the length of his forehead from hairline to temple as he leans forward to explain the way he works. "To a certain degree, all the characters have to be you. Just the way Freud said in The Interpretation of Dreams, if you have a dream, all the characters in the dream are you, including even the inanimate things. It's the same in a novel. You have to have part of yourself invested in all of your characters, including the walk-ons and jokers. I realize that that may put me a little bit on the edge of fiction writing, because a lot of it, especially by younger writers, is really about themselves. And so frankly, that aspect is a lot easier, if you write about your experience as stripper, as truck driver, as whatever.... I guess I'm not really interested in myself as a character, I'm interested in other people, so the authenticity comes in once you've gotten the emotional identification with everybody and everything in the book."

While he may not be explicitly interested in looking inward in his fiction, the experiences of an earlier self certainly fed his first two books. Sex, drugs, and acts of violence figure prominently in Electrical Storms and the pitfalls of addiction are a major theme in Rat Palms.

"I didn't grow up being polite," he says succinctly, clearly more reluctant to talk about himself than about his writing. As a kid, he and his buddies had regular run-ins with the Chicago police over attempted train derailments and other acts of juvenile vice. "It was the end of the 60s and there was a lot of the usual sex and drugs and rock and roll and political vandalism. And I was good at all those things. Very good even. I could throw a baseball, I could throw a rock, I could throw a Molotov cocktail.

"But at the same time, it was funny. A lot of people were taking a lot of drugs and there was something in me, I think it was probably the writer, the artist quote unquote, that kept me from that. That kept me wanting, not to be in control, but to see what was going on."

Recalling our party-time conversation about the beautiful androgynous woman, I ask him if he was collecting material even back then.

"That sounds terrible!" He seems taken aback, even conscience-stricken. "No, I just wanted to keep up, to see what the attitudes were, to see what was going to happen.... I wanted to hear what people were saying, the kind of stupid things they'd say when they were stoned. You may call that `material'.... But a part of me was always at work."

A sobering experience put a stop to this "research". At the age of eighteen, he fell off a cliff in Spain (acquiring the back and knee injuries that account for the drafting tables he works at today instead of a desk).

"You've heard the expression `hospital junkie'? While I was in hospital, I could have all the needles and drugs I wanted. And I quickly became addicted to whatever kinds of morphiates they were serving up at the time." For a writer who prizes memory as his most important tool, it was a shattering experience. He has no recall of the period from December 1970 to April 1971. "I was just working at getting clean."

He adds drily, "After that happened, it sort of dimmed my enthusiasm for drugs."

Alongside playing with proverbial fire, he was also a diligent student. From grade school, he showed a facility for languages and opted to take both French and Spanish when he was supposed to choose only one in school. He studied at the University of Paris and obtained bachelor's and master's degrees in comparative literature from the Universities of Indiana and of Toronto respectively. In 1981 he moved to Montreal where he shares his life with the children's author and illustrator Marie-Louise Gay. They have two school-aged sons.

His greatest strengths as a writer are a genuine flair for language (Homel on making soup: "A bone, some root vegetables and a handful of barley were being boiled into an alliance."), a sardonic sense of humour, deftness with dialogue, and the ability to nail down exotic locales convincingly. Getting Chicago right for Electrical Storms presented few problems ipso facto, but already with Rat Palms he researched in the painstaking manner that was a blueprint for his work on Sonya & Jack. (He travelled to Georgia to get the setting and dialogue right, studying among other things nautical maps to understand the meanderings of the Lazaretto River.)

For Homel the real test of writing Sonya & Jack was how to make the family myth-the strange story of his mother's cousins who chose to return to the Soviet Union-sufficiently his own to convince readers to believe in it.

Sonya & Jack exacted trips to Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Hungary (luckily he had been to Haiti in the 70s), but it was his inner journey towards identifying with the narrator that proved the riskiest. The playful grace with which the novel commences-"The tale of my miraculous origins begins with a joke. All the best ones do"-stems from a combination of both inspiration and desperation.

There were at least two reasons for Homel to take up the tale that had been kicking around the family for decades about "cousin so-and-so, wasn't he crazy, he and his wife actually left the US and went back to the USSR! Ha-ha-ha." First, it had the makings of a damned good story. Second, he owned a talismanic connection to it himself.

When Homel graduated from high school, one of his aunts gave him a typewriter and, with boyish zeal, "I thought I'd better have something to type on it." With this in mind, he visited a distant and ancient cousin, who began by quizzing him about literature.

"`You know that guy in the book, Borodin, the Russian? You know, in Malraux's book.'"

He didn't have a clue what she was talking about but, trying to protect his reputation as the family intellectual, kept mum. Much later he figured out that she had been talking about Man's Fate, which with hindsight he now calls "a terrible novel".

"`That guy, in Malraux's book. He's a cousin.'"

Homel chuckles with relish. "At that point, I thought she was completely nuts, because how did this old lady in her old apartment in Chicago figure that a cousin of ours was in a Frenchman's novel?"

The old woman went on to spin a long and complicated story about how, thirty years earlier, she had gone to Russia to visit cousins who had moved back there and about how, when they all attended a family picnic she knew that something had to be very wrong because "to complain is to live and no one was complaining."

The sixteen-year-old David Homel returned home to his typewriter in 1969 and dutifully hammered out the account he had just heard. And the forty-three-year-old novelist sums up in his office on Saint Denis Street, "I kept that little piece of paper with me all these years. And after Rat Palms was over in '91, I thought, now I'd better write something else. Here's something I can work on."

"History," Homel declares in an introductory note to the novel, "is made to be, if not rewritten, at least improved in novels." His decision to include Borodin-not a cousin as the old woman had believed but nonetheless an actual historical figure who played a prominent part in the history of both Chinese and Russian Communism (and had, indeed, spent time in Chicago trying to export revolution)-is the most controversial thing he has done in the novel. In bending the facts of Borodin's life to suit the needs of the book, Homel has endangered the very authenticity that he has worked so hard to achieve.

But he had his reasons. "When you're beginning on some kind of obscure project, the fact that there are real people doing real things is a source of comfort. That's one of the things with research, it kind of makes you think that this thing you're inventing out of thin air can actually exist."

The book is dedicated to Homel's parents and to his Russian cousin Clara, and her family "whose story this is."

Homel traced these cousins to Moscow in 1991. He spent time that summer with them and returned to Montreal, fully expecting to write the book.

It wouldn't work. "I was sitting in this room trying to write the beginning of what would become Sonya & Jack and I wrote it over and over again. And it just got worse every time because I didn't really have any identification to it. I knew it was a good story but I didn't know what I had to do with it."

One thing had struck him, though. At the family dacha north of Moscow ("they called it a dacha, but it was really a hut without water or electricity") he had had a moment of epiphany. "It seemed like we were universal peasants, we had to fetch water from a well, and before eating we poured water on each other's hands and soaped ourselves. And suddenly I looked at the hands of one of my cousins, and they were exactly my mother's hands.

"It was like a mystical moment. [I realized] that I, too, had issued from that Russian muck, and maybe I had some way into the story afterwards."

Months later, the answer came to him "on a midnight clear. I realized I was the son, `I, Homel,' the person who's sitting here, was the son of Sonya the Red. I was little Michael Mefili, telling her story. I had to be on the inside of her story."

The following winter he returned to Russia and sat down with eighty-eight-year-old Clara. "When I told her, `I am your son,' I thought she'd consider me insane. But she was just tickled to death and clapped her hands and said, `Oh, wonderful! Well, let's have some fun, let's see who you would be."

There's always something miraculous about creation, about bringing forth something new and fresh from a void. Homel begins his story with the declaration, "Rules are made to be broken, lies are made to be told, especially the family variety." Sonya & Jack breaks the rules of history, tells a few whoppers but does honour to the miracle at the heart of all good fiction.

Elaine Kalman Naves is the author of The Writers of Montreal (Véhicule, 1993).


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