No place like home

Matt Bissonnette returns to his NDG roots with his
first novel, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock

by JULIET WATERS, The Mirror
April 17, 2008

Matt Bissonnette and I were both visiting our parents in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce on a recent Saturday, so we figured we'd meet up at the latest incarnation of the B&M pizzeria.

Anyone listening in on our conversation as it returned again, and again, to a post-mortem of the Expos (what happened, ballparks around the continent, the conspiracy to sink them etc.) would immediately write us off as a couple of NDG geezers-in-training. No one would suspect one of us of being an L.A.-based filmmaker (Looking for Leonard, Who Loves the Sun) and writer, married to the actress Molly Parker. We sound so much like the potentially sad future of the young NDG-bred characters in Bissonnette's first novel, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, it's scary.

Of course, the future of NDG has not turned out all that sad. The maples are older and more beautiful and the houses in this now multilingual neighbourhood are worth easily 10 times what they were. And the parks are no longer home to the dumbed down, anti-French, anglo-Irish punk-rocker wannabes that populate Smash Your Head; confused lower-middle-class kids in the '80s feeling their community slowly drain away, and acting out in Stanley Cup riots, Clash concerts and eventually their own bands.

Why, when you're living the kind of glam life where you can casually drop an anecdote about drinking with Dominic West (Det. McNulty from The Wire), would you want to come back to that time and place? Bissonnette (who spent the first six years of his life in Baltimore, which is how the McNulty anecdote came up) is just a strong believer in writing about what you know.

"I guess I'm of the opinion that if you weren't there, you don't really know what the fuck you're talking about. I'm not really interested in telling true stories, but I'm interested in telling stories that sound emotionally true. I wanted to express honestly at that time how people were talking about each other…. Children have this really insular little world, and so did English Montreal. At that time, it was a world being broken up by a political reality."

This isn't to say that Bissonnette believes that anglo Montrealers were deeply harmed by the rise of Quebec nationalism, or that he agrees with the half-baked political views in his book. He expects some people to take issue with the way he presents some of the adolescent racism at the time.

"Those political events had to happen, and it's good they happened, but that doesn't mean you can't be true to how they played through. It's kind of like watching an iceberg fall apart. You're not arguing against what's happening. But as it falls you kind of want to listen to what it sounds like and hear the screeches of the gulls and watch some of the penguins get thrown over the side."

Today, the penguins Montrealers are most concerned with are from Pittsburgh. And like the boys in Bissonnette's novel, we're having a hard time focusing on anything other than hockey.

Once we're finished with the Expos, we're on to the Habs, and comparisons between watching them at the Bell Centre, which Bissonnette did a few days before, and at the relatively sterile Staples Centre—where they have cheerleaders.

Bissonnette and Parker are happy living in Echo Park and raising their 17-month-old son, William. Bissonnette's working on a script for a new film, a road movie with two Montrealers, and Parker will be the lead in a new CBS series, Swingtown.

But his hope is still to move back to Montreal ASAP. Why? He answers with a smile, but more than just a glint of the NDG geezer lurking within, "because there's no other way my son will ever play pro hockey…" The nearest rink, apparently, is in Pasadena.