There is no getting around it; Grognard is a difficult novel to read in the extreme. It is a challenge not to dismiss it, put it down and perhaps even throw away. There are racial slurs, homophobic rants, obscene sexual cravings, disgusts and depravities, harsh and cruel social labeling and name-calling and general nihilistic inhumanity on a wholesale scale. But there are also moments of love and compassion (no matter how queer or alien to the “civilized” eye) and the search for worth amongst the self-loathing and blame. And there is pity to be felt. It is a well written novel of understated, psychological horror that gathers its power in an accumulating storm of words and ideas that beat you down like dark driving weather, and when the physical horror – the violence – finally arrives it is sudden and shocking, voyeuristic and ultimately (you realize) inevitable.
“ABOUT GROGNARD – Felix Moullec is a sociopath in his mid-20s who lives in a rented duplex in a South Florida ghetto along with his father who is sexually attracted to him. He is a college graduate but because of the recession he cannot find decent work so he delivers newspapers part-time. One day in November he and his father go sailing with his ailing grandfather aboard his sailboat Grognard and they discuss how fed up they are with their lives. This turns out to be the last time the three Moullecs go sailing together because his grandfather, Jean, soon suffers a stroke and he is put in a nursing home. Felix and his father, Jacques, are involved in a car accident in which Jacques is killed. And then after stumbling upon the grave of his one–time best friend Felix regresses to a childhood psychosis and lives out his catholic fantasies aboard Grognard.”
The back jacket also says that Grognard was written in “an intense two-week spell of disgust and hate” … well, that is very good copy and I’m not sure that I believe the book was written that quickly because to believe that you would damn well have to come close to believing that the author, Patrick J. F. Quéré, is as much a sociopath as his protagonist Felix Moullec, from whose mouth and mind vomit forth wave after wave of such nonsensical, deformed social commentary and vitriol – and I say “mind” because it is clear that the narrator of the book is also Felix: he knows too intimately what Felix is feeling and his choice of images and framing reflect too closely the diseased depths of the young man’s injured and altered psyche. It is an English major’s attempt at telling his own story – it is too complimentary and self-referential. And there is simply too much here to believe that it is as off the cuff as advertised. It is voluminous and the assaults are polished as if having been contemplated and refined over time and through the prism of an educated mind. Some are even blatantly stereotypical and unimaginative; it’s as if Quéré attempted to catalog all of the possible hate speech that he has ever heard and read and placed them unabashedly into his character Felix’s lap.
I actually had to read the novel twice; I needed to see if I could separate what I had initially read from my knee-jerk reaction being that all this had indeed come from the author’s “mouth” (as vaguely teased on the jacket) – I needed to find the character of Felix Moullec amidst the caustic mayhem and my personal distaste and discomfort on first reading and to separate author Patrick from protagonist Felix … and on second read I was able to do just that: I was able to see Felix as a character in a novel.
At first blush Felix Moullec is a young, dissatisfied, disillusioned intellectual snob who thinks the world owes him everything and who thinks that he has the bead on and the solution to what ails all of society (not unlike any other young student that you can hear pontificating on college campuses across the country); he is a young man who uses his degree in English as wet nurse to his ego and his education to color in the outlines of his immature, myopic world view – you would think he should know better, that he has been rigorously challenged by his professors and fellow students en route to his degree, but … we soon learn that Felix has also lost his mother to prostitution at an early age, has been beaten by his father who remains sexually attracted to him and replaces the sex act with having him cut his hair (throughout which he harbors a hard on) and has attended predominantly black schools where he suffered weekly beatings on “Cracker Day” … he is a boy who never grew up and misses the idea of having a mother, who relishes the memory of the teacher who gave him a gardenia the year that his mother left him and who still cares for the plant, and he is a boy who still has his blue plastic pencil box with stickers that say “SUPER STUDENT”, “FIRST RATE”, “GOOD WORK” and “KIDS ARE SPECIAL PEOPLE” though now rather than pencils the box contains “Felix’s Box of Injustices”.
It seems that Felix uses his education as an attempt to nurture himself when no one else will, to care for himself when no one else will, to be “first rate” and “special” as he was led to believe – but like the parasites that cling to his beloved gardenia, unfortunately his past injuries will not let him go, the bombing runs on his person have torn up too much soil in his soul and have poisoned him and they won’t allow him to grow any further.
And he literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks in Hollywood, Florida – not the land of illusions and storybook lives but an East coast hovel of disillusionment and harsh realities: no man-made institution can be depended upon here, all is soon revealed as a lie and an inept construct of beauty, power, mystery, mysticism and stability – on a Freedom Street littered with potholes in the shadow of the Dixie Highway and tucked under the parallel arm of the freight line that carries hopper cars filled with limestone dug from the nearby quarry pits “whose white sandy shores were lined with cars that (had) been recently pulled out of (their) fantastic indigo depths”; there will be no pulling out of there to win – Felix was not born to run. This is not Springsteen’s America.
There is talk of a sequel – it is almost too much to imagine a series of Felix Moullec novels though I must admit the thought is intriguing. I mean, where in the hell (hell, indeed) would Quéré take this character? Felix Moullec has the potential to become Dexter on poisoned steroids – Grognard is Dexter without the pretty Miami cinematography … I’m reminded of the quote by David Mamet: “Hitler had great cinematography”. Well, Dexter’s “code” prettifies him and makes him legitimate and palatable – he is our executioner and we’ll gladly pay no mind. We excuse Dexter, so why not Felix? Aren’t they both culling the herd? And Dexter doesn’t really make us question anything, it’s entertainment. Felix, however, makes us question everything. Felix Moullec is Dexter Morgan without the “edgy” Showtime dialogue – that’s not to say that the dialogue in Grognard isn’t as well-written and artfully rendered, it’s just not as self-conscious:
“How’s it goin’, Champ?” said an old man in a New Jersey accent who was wearing a pink suit, and he was punching the air with his fist while his other hand gripped the head of a golf club that he was using for a walking cane. His breath reeked of cat food.
“I’m ok, Lou,” Felix said. “How are you?”
“You know what the broads call me? Loveable Lou. Ain’t that smooth? Ever have a thousand-dollar-a-night prostitute, Champ?”
“Spread out over a few weeks, yeah. They are also called girlfriends.”
“There ain’t nothin’ in the world like havin’ a thousand-dollar-a-night prostitute, Champ. Had me this one in Atlantic City. She sucked me off so good I forgot my name, rank, and serial number. You’ll get one though. You’re a bright kid. Say, what they give you now in the army for a sign-on bonus, ten grand?”
“Something like that.”
“Gee! That’s a lot of dough! Got me a new broad livin’ with me in my garage. The other one took off who knows where. Ah, she was a bum anyway. I like feet. Does that mean anythin’ to you? My tongue is hard just thinkin’ about it. So long, Champ!”
The old man hobbled away punching the air.
In Dexter, we are entertained by the ritual and depend upon the comeuppance contained in the violence. In Grognard the violence is random and unreliable, arbitrary, sudden and brutal and always about the dehumanization of men and women (especially women).
This is a hard novel to like, even enjoy as you read, but once finished and removed from its pages you strangely harbor a sickening affinity for it and connection with it; you have heard this type of speech before, have perhaps even participated in such shallow, cowardly, lazy examples of labeling, name-calling and compartmentalizing of another human being, no matter how inadvertent and profoundly more “innocent” than contained therein the novel, and you find yourself ashamed because the book has stayed with you and has made you think that which you would prefer not to engage. It eats away at you; you could spend hours (even days) contemplating and debating its depths – it is like driving a spade into an ant hill and uncovering a convoluted network of dark avenues and chambers all while being bitten by fire ants.
This is one of the most assaulting books I’ve ever read – nothing has angered me more, has sickened me and made me question myself more in this field in recent memory; in fact, I am no longer pro-death penalty because I realized that I was party and subscribed to the same type of societal dehumanization and labeling that allowed Felix to personally detach himself from other human beings, act with depravity towards them in speech and action, torture them and ultimately kill. And that is why Grognard is, I believe, a work of dark, horrific art. Not perfect, indeed flawed (it’s a first novel, after all), and certainly not to everyone’s taste but well modulated and constructed art that knows exactly what it’s doing and needs to be experienced nonetheless.
“Grognard” by Patrick J. F. Quéré ~ 188 pages Trade Paper ~ ISBN #9781453685457 ~$17.95 ~ Published by Sunbury Press