The Butcher of Park Ex by Andreas Kessaris
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
If you know the Montreal literary scene, you know Andreas Kessaris. He is the hulking mass at the back of Paragraphe Bookstore, the grey eminence sporting the long hair and facial hair of a Greek Orthodox priest, which he might have been in an earlier existence. He is the man who says yay or nay to aspiring writers hoping to book in-store readings of their latest masterpieces, and often corrects your pronunciation of his last name with a gruff “It’s Greek.” And if you are an aficionado of the annual Quebec Writers Federation’s awards gala, you’ve seen him there, manning the book tables in the back, ready to take your money for copies of the winners and the losers. Yes, the man is synonymous with books, and now with his debut short story collection, The Butcher of Park Ex, this iconic figure is not just a bookseller but a bookmaker, a craftsman of fine fiction rooted in the spirit of the City.
The Butcher of Park Ex is not a horror story, as the title might normally suggest—a clever example of Kessaris’ wit. It is an interlinked collection of short stories about Kessaris’ youth and later adult life in Montreal’s iconic Park Extension neighbourhood where successive waves of immigrants have started new lives in Canada. And the title story chronicles the height of Hellenic rule when the local Greek butcher held court before the female denizens of Park Ex. There is a definite nostalgia, as Kessaris relates how these women kept the community alive with gossip and intrigue, long before the internet, and a sense of sadness when the grocery store passes on to new immigrants from Bangladesh.
Kessaris is generous with his story-telling. His collection features 24 “semi-truthful tales,” each with a nice twist revealing the narrator’s personality in bit-size doses. Thankfully, this is not another coming-of-age story. God knows, CanLit has seen more than enough of those. Instead, the collection is driven by Kessaris’ wry humour, coherent exposition, colourful character development, self-deprecation, and very little sex, apparently an accurate reflection of the author’s stumbling love life.
I enjoyed every story in the collection, but three stories stood out.
“The House on L’Acadie” defines the book and the author, capturing the high point of childhood when mischievious adventure threatens the narrator and his brother with impending doom, only to be saved by their clever mother. It is a time of harmonious family life and the freedom to be a child. Later, we learn how this harmony dissipates in a family breaking up and adolescence puts an end to childish joys.
“A Day at the Beach” is not the “it-doesn’t-get-any-better” story its title suggests, but it is a memorable one nonetheless. In it, we meet The Weasel, Kessaris’ best friend. Described as “smoother than a baby’s bottom,” The Weasel is Kessaris’ alter ego: the man who achieves success while the narrator stumbles, makes a bundle of money while the narrator juggles utility bills. The story revolves around the two young men’s attempt to have some fun by rounding up their possé and driving to the beach for the day. It is an adventurous read with a well-that-was-a-colossal-waste-
of-time anti-climax, offering a helpful insight into the depth of their friendship.
“The Merry Monk” is another Weasel story. Kessaris’ buddy has moved up in the corporate world and has scored a training course in Toronto. Kessaris convinces his friend, now flushed with cash, to spot him a short vacation in Canada’s metropolis. They go all out: an NHL game between the Toronto Maples Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, an altercation with an excited Leafs fan, Thai food, etc. But the highlight of the trip is the discovery of a dusty curios store, something long past in Montreal. And in it, nothing less than the Merry Monk, a bobble-head Chinese monk who offers an anatomical surprise when you push down on its head. Kessaris truly masters the art of harnessing the kitschy and mildly vulgar to delight his readers.
The Butcher of Park Ex is published by Guernica Editions.