Nineteen years old, free of prospects, and inescapably famous, the twins Nicholas and Nouschka Tremblay are trying to outrun the notoriety of their father, a French-Canadian Serge Gainsbourg with a genius for the absurd and for winding up in prison. Since the twins were little, Étienne has made them part of his unashamed seduction of the province, parading them on talk shows and then dumping them with their decrepit grandfather while he disappeared into some festive squalor. Now Étienne is washed up and the twins are making their own almost-grown-up messes, with every misstep landing on the front pages of the tabloid Allo Police. Nouschka not only needs to leave her childhood behind; she also has to leave her brother, whose increasingly erratic decisions might take her down with him. In The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, Heather O’Neill returns to this grubby, enchanted city with a light and profound tale of the vice of fame and the ties of family.
Chapter 1: Girls! Girls! Girls!
I was heading along Rue Sainte-Catherine to sign up for night school. There was a cat outside a strip joint going in a circle. I guessed it had learned that behaviour from a stripper. I picked it up in my arms. “What’s new, pussycat,” I said.
All the buildings on that block were strip clubs. What on earth was their heating bill like in the winter? They were beautiful, skinny stone buildings with gargoyles above the windows. They were the same colour as the rain. There were lights blinking around the doors. You followed the lightbulbs up the stairs. They were long-life lightbulbs, not the name-brand kind. The music got louder and louder as you approached the entrance of the club, like the music in horror films.
Cars filled with American boys would come up to see the girls, girls, girls on the day the boys turned eighteen. The boys from Ontario came in on the train and slept nine to a hotel room downtown. Because you could do anything you wanted with the Québécois girls. You could stroke their asses. You could lick their privates with everyone watching. You could take them behind a little curtain and fuck them while wearing bright blue condoms that the girls could keep their eyes on.
The girls were backstage, getting ready. Their big toes were getting stuck in their fishnets. Their yellow ponytails were being put up lopsided. They were putting on too much makeup. Their bangs were in their eyes. Their tummies folded over the elastic bands of their underwear. One was wearing big glasses because she’d lost her contact lenses. One drank a glass of water that made her feel cold inside, and she wondered if she was going to have a bladder infection. And one of the girls yawned, and everything is so catching in these clubs that everyone started yawning and yawning.
The ones who had been dancing awhile looked like Barbie dolls with their muscles and knee-high boots and their no-nonsense attitude. They were like superheroes. The new girls showed up onstage with inappropriate underwear and bikini bottoms and high-heeled shoes a size too big. One eighteen-year-old girl was wearing a sailor hat from her grandfather’s closet in Saint-Jérôme. She’d been raised for this life, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not.
We were all descended from orphans in Québec. Before I’d dropped out of high school, I remembered reading about how ships full of girls were sent from Paris to New France to marry the inhabitants. They stepped off the boat with puke on their dresses and stood on the docks, waiting to be chosen.
They were pregnant before they even had a chance to unpack their bags. They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to populate this horrible land that was snow and rocks and skinny wolves. They spoke to their children through gritted teeth. That’s where the Québec accent came from. The nation crawled out from between their legs.
HEATHER O’NEILL is a contributor to This American Life, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. Her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, an international bestseller, won the Paragraphe Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction and the Canada Reads competition in 2007; was short-listed for six prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Governor General’s Literary Award; and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She lives in Montreal, Canada.