Review: Charles the Bold v2

Charles the Bold becomes a man: In Vol. 2 of Yves Beauchemin’s Bildungsroman, the protagonist teeters on the
brink of criminality, but is saved by luck, pluck, friends – and his own good

Montreal Gazette
Sat Mar 24 2007
In the first book of Charles the Bold, Yves Beauchemin’s multivolume Montreal-flavoured bildungsroman, the young protagonist acts most often as if his nickname were Charles the Rash.
Charles acts instinctively against the forces weighing against him – primarily his father, the drunken ne’er-do-well Wilfrid Thibodeau, but also a pederast, teachers and priests, and a shady chocolate salesman.
In Vol. 2, The Years of Fire, young Charles begins to earn his sobriquet. He now works more boldly and calculatingly, as befits a teenager.
The central storyline of The Years of Fire is Charles’s continuing problem with papa.
Fernand Fafard, the funny/angry/generous/oh-so-real man who has adopted Charles, had paid Wilfrid $5,000 to leave them alone.
Now, Wilfrid has returned. He needs more money to slake his thirst and threatens to burn down Fafard’s hardware store. When Wilfrid’s arson attempt fails, it is Charles, ever conscious of what Fernand has done for him, who tries to pay off Wilfrid.
The teenager’s guilt-driven and well-intentioned plan takes him through the doors of east-end Montreal pool rooms and smoky, stale-beer-smelling taverns, and into the netherworld of drug trafficking. This segment of the novel is populated by rogues and angels alike, the kind of wide-ranging and fully drawn characters we’ve come to expect from Beauchemin.
Charles fancies a career as a writer. One of his friends, the notary Parfait Michaud, honours the boy with a loan of a book, The Human Comedy. He tells Charles: “That’s one of the benefits of great books. … You’ll learn to appreciate the effects of passion, greed, ambition, egotism, and hatred thrown into fierce hand-to-hand combat with virtue, love, friendship, genius, integrity, and what have you!”
The Years of Fire is one of these “great books”: It is replete with passion, greed, ambition, hatred, yes, all in combat, mano-a-mano, with virtue, love, friendship, genius and integrity. No wonder Beauchemin is considered Quebec’s Balzac.
Several times in Vol. 1 of Charles the Bold, (which is the title of the first book as well as the series), Charles comes close to the kind of juvenile delinquency that can stain one’s early life, but from which one can recover. In The Years of Fire, however, Charles teeters on criminality, saved by luck, pluck, the love of good friends and the kind of sense few youths possess.
The title refers not only to Wilfrid’s arson attempt, but also to Charles’s growing interest in girls.
Mostly, though, The Years of Fire points to the forging of Charles as a man of fortitude. Had Charles not been tested in fire – the drug sales, theft, his father – we as readers would not believe Charles’s proclamation at the end of the book: “Montreal! You’re going to be hearing from me! I’m going to make your ears ring!”
Yet even here, we see that Charles’s intentions are sometimes in conflict with his actions. Charles, who shouts his bold statement from the giant black granite slab in the (then) Berri-de-Montigny metro with a ticket collector fast approaching, is intent to defy Montreal before conquering it. But he’ll have to learn to curtail his impulsiveness.
Charles’s years are also those of Quebec’s young independence movement. This second volume starts about 1979. The Parti Quebecois, elected in 1976, has established language laws and sign laws and is looking forward to a referendum.
Early on in the book, with Charles pretty much unaware of politics, Beauchemin interrupts his narrative with chunks of political exposition. This was an irritant in the first book, and I worried it would continue here.
As Charles ages, however, he becomes more aware of himself within the political landscape and Beauchemin is able to weave politics into his storyline more seamlessly. There’s a scene where the boy can’t believe he has just shaken hands with the premier, Rene Levesque, and, more effectively, a point where Charles reflects on the 1837 revolt of Louis-Joseph Papineau as a parallel to his own life and rebellion.

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