Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
The premise of a young man seeking to uncover the circumstances of his refugee father's death immediately drew me to The Only Café. More so since the father's backstory was amid the intrigues of the Lebanese Civil War, a subject of decades of personal interest. So it was that I embarked on a reading of Linden MacIntyre's latest novel with a great deal of gusto, and was not disappointed.
The plot centres around a father and son, largely strangers to each other. Pierre Cormier (né Haddad), the father, is a high-flying Toronto lawyer who mysteriously disappears amid a corporate scandal, for which he is on his way to be scapegoated. When irrefutable evidence of Pierre's death surfaces five years later, his son Cyril is called upon, as a condition in his father's will, to organize a roast for him at a dingy west-side bar. The guest list is short. Just a few members of Pierre's inner circle and a certain Ari, whom no one seems to know and who has neither a last name or address. Cyril, now an intern at a major television network, uses his budding journalistic skills to track Ari down at the bar, The Only Café, and discovers that yes, the man knew his father and that Ari is a former Israeli soldier and possibly linked to his father's past in war-torn Lebanon.
The plot is driven forward by Cyril's investigation into the disappearance of his father and nicely complemented by flashback passages to Pierre's involvement in the Lebanese civil war. We discover the tragic circumstances that land the young Pierre in a Christian militia intent on ridding Lebanon of the PLO. Here, MacIntyre, a seasoned foreign correspondent, demonstrates an intimate knowledge of Lebanon. His Lebanon passages brim with action and suspense and are by far the best parts of the novel.
There is, however, a disparity in MacIntyre's writing and character development. While the character of Pierre emerges as flawed but intensely strong, attractive and constantly faced with life-and-death issues, his son/co-protagonist Cyril comes over as confused, trivialized and emasculated by the women around him: an overbearing mother, an ambitious on-and-off girlfriend, and a sexual-exploiting older female boss. This dichotomy sidelines the more impactful chapters of the novels, and when the readers feel that they should be rooting for Cyril, his haplessness puts them off.
The novel falls short in a few other minor areas, chiefly, the extensive use of dialogue where exposition could have moved the plot along at a better pace, the lack of depth given to the female characters, and a rushed ending, stopping short of a fitting climax. These are minor blemishes on an exceptional work of fiction. Its original and interesting narrative of inescapability from the past and authentic insights into the conflict in Lebanon make it a highly recommended read.
The Only Café is published by Random House Canada.