Book Review : Trevanian - The Main (1976)
The name Trevanian will most likely not ring any bell for you. It's OK, he's a largely forgotten American writer who was once so popular, he sold over a million copies of half of the novels he's written. How could fall from the face of the Earth so fast? It's a difficult question. His novels are nuanced, complex and quite difficult to adapt into movies, which are the yardstick for immortality for authors. One thing that made Trevanian fun was his unpredictability. Not only you didn't know what would come next, but you didn't know what genre it would be. But it was always great.
Oddly enough, Trevanian chose to write The Main, detective novel about Montreal in 1976. And, for the love of everything that's beautiful, I don't know how he made my city more interesting than any author actually living in it.
The Main is the story of Claude Lapointe, an aging decorated police lieutenant who patrols St-Laurent boulevard, a street that unofficially splits the city in two. On the East are the working class francophones and on the West, everyone else: the anglophones, the immigrants, the people who don't fit, etc. It is also called the main. Lapointe literally owns the main. He decides whether or not people should go to jail, have the right to roam the streets, etc. He's an old fashioned cop and he figures he earned it. That changes the day a young, undocumented kid is found stabbed on his beat. Lapointe's lonely existence is about to take a rough turn.
Let's not talk about the Montreal stuff right away. Trevanian is high concept writer and while he nailed the sense of place, it's not what made The Main so interesting. Claude Lapointe is a stand-in for the Old Testament God: dark, vengeful and forcing people to play by his rules. St-Laurent boulevard is his Babylon and the murder of Antonio Verdini is the last act of defiance against him that Lapointe will have to solve in his career. But pure strength and intimidation is getting the lieutenant nowhere because it hasn't been committed by a hoodlum to be contained.
The Main is, basically, a pseudo-religious allegory for the collapse of moral certitudes. The old vengeful god is not vanquished, but put aside by complication that his rigid set of rules can't handle. He was not what the people needed going forward. I believe Trevanian chose St-Laurent boulevard to illustrate his allegory because of its chaotic nature: there are old stores, new stores, some that come and go before you notice there were even there, famous figures and anonymous bystanders, young people, old people, francophones, anglophones, Greeks, Portugese people, you get the gist.
French Canadians were also at the crossroads, back then. Nationalism was on the rise and Parti Québécois was about to win the elections for the first time. The were leaving a past of oppression * behind and taking control of their own destiny for the first time. That's also reflected in the struggle for relevance of Claude Lapointe, a ghost of the old world. In good Trevanian fashion, there's many layers of depth and interpretation to The Main, which makes is engaging way beyond the murder investigation, which is more interesting for what it represents than for the mystery.
Trevanian's obviously been to Montreal several times. He might've even lived here for a while his depiction of Montreal is still eerily accurate, it's also fascinating in its small mistakes. For example, Lapointe talks of St-Laurent/Van Horne intersection. It doesn't exist. What should be this intersection is an overpass and Van Horne begins only a couple streets later. These small mistakes give the novel the feeling of an alternate reality. There's a lot to like about The Main. It's not the most exciting novel. It's a meditative novel about collective identity seen from a godlike figure point of view. It's still rich and pertinent over 40 years after publication, though.
People might not remember Trevanian, but his work is oddly immortal.
* No, they were not really oppressed by the Englishmen, but by the Church and opportunist politicians like Maurice Duplessis who sold their resources for a dime on the dollar to anglophone interests.