Among the clearest, most pervasive symptoms of a society’s decline is its abandonment of manners, good taste and tact. Such is Toby Ménard’s honest belief, and the restoration of these virtues has become his life’s work. But Toby’s confrontation with boorish reality is about to begin.
Toby is a paradigm of success. As a member of the news department at Montreal’s preeminent English-language television station, he is the host of Toby: A Gentleman, a program devoted to educating viewers in the principles of taste and gentility and to providing useful guidance in the mechanics of a refined life: how to properly fold a display handkerchief, the importance of quality suits, why it is never appropriate to run or raise one’s voice in public, which wine to order. He lives in a show-place downtown condominium, has a large wardrobe of high quality clothing and accessories, drives a tastefully sporty BMW, vaguely discusses the future with a beautiful girlfriend born to Westmount wealth, has his face reproduced hugely on billboards all over the city. But more important, none of these things are trophies or shallow adornments in Toby’s life. He possesses only what a gentleman should possess. He does as a gentleman does. Toby is a gentleman.
However, one morning after he has pulled his father from a burning automobile in his parents’ Dollard-des-Ormeaux driveway, after an unsettling visit to his girlfriend’s house, Toby collapses —on camera and live to air —into a fugue of incorrectness while interviewing a minority politician. This bizarre lapse of protocol loses him his job, and with it his ability to maintain his car or his home.
It turns out he’s being cuckolded by his boss. His parents’ hot dog business is about to go bad. He must move into the suburban basement he grew up in, and finds himself hanging out with his suburban high school friends. His father might be going mad. And then Toby is chivalrous with a woman on the street and winds up with her infant son abandoned to his care.
Todd Babiak has created, in Toby Ménard, a Don Quixote for the age: when social standards are forgotten and manners are mocked, when circumstances seem to render any attempt at nobility ridiculous, Toby soldiers on. Even when he is forced to assume managerial duties in one of the family wiener joints, even when a glimpse of true happiness comes upon him in the unruly aisles of Costco, Toby never loses his grip on propriety. While all the forces of trashiness are arrayed against him, he earnestly defends the principles of good behavior.
In a world that Babiak paints with photographic clarity and precision, through storms of misfortune rendered with compassion and hilarity, Toby is stripped of all veneers and affectations. What begins as a horrific succession of humiliations, he gradually comes to regard as a series of enlightening challenges. At last he is able to separate his substance from his surface and to make himself a man. But he is never less than a gentleman.
Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes who has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Quebec.