The Thursday Night Men by Tonino Benacquista: Review
published in Toronto Star
October 6, 2012
The 51-year-old author Tonino Benacquista, who began writing crime novels in the 80s, has spent the two decades since 1991’s breakthrough Comedia des ratés cultivating that rare combination of critical and popular acclaim in his native France. Reading The Thursday Night Men, his 10th novel since 1985, it’s easy to see why.
The author writes with an endearing, conversational matter-of-factness that mixes a spectrum of emotional hues with tracts of pop philosophy. Reading Benacquista can feel like gossiping with an old university professor about his love life over afternoon coffee, with all the attendant emotional wisdom and stilted sex details.
Here, Benacquista introduces us to a clandestine meeting of men who gather every Thursday to discuss those complicated episodes from their lives that they can’t share with anyone else. Think of it as an anti-Fight Club. These are mostly men who have lost the women in their lives, or whose relationships have become so constrained that they can no longer speak openly.
It is at these weekly sessions that three men from very different walks of life — the career waiter Denis Benitez, the window installer Yves Lehaleur, and the well-known philosopher Philippe Saint-Jean — first meet and strike up a casual friendship.
A onetime playboy, Denis can no longer attract women now that he’s searching for a meaningful partner instead of a one-night stand. The recently divorced Yves is still bitter from his ex-wife’s one-night stand with a male stripper. For his part, Philippe hasn’t met anyone worth dating since his long-term partnership came to an end years ago.
The Thursday night sessions, it turns out, offer catharsis to the speakers, a soft exorcism of otherwise incommunicable demons. Benacquista portrays middle-aged masculinity as an isolating experience, where too much is invested in careers, too little in loved ones, and complicated webs are often self-created.
Along the way, Benacquista’s omniscient narrator enters the mind of every character that comes along and more than thoroughly explains their motivations, as if to remind us that the many variations of contemporary men at play here all connect back to his binding theme.
This isn’t strictly necessary. When The Thursday Night Men hits its stride, it weaves complex and alluring storylines that require no such authorial intrusion. Yves, who begins frequenting a daily carousel of expensive prostitutes, finds that he enjoys the emotional distance the transaction provides, while simultaneously finding a thrill from breaking past their emotional masks. But when they begin falling in love with him or landing on his doorstep after getting beaten up by other clients, he feels they’re asking too much of him.
On other occasions, the novel would benefit greatly from Benacquista allowing his ordinary men to live through less obviously symbolic events that ask readers to suspend their disbelief. Why would a strange woman break into Denis the waiter’s house and live on his couch if not to prove anything more than a thematic argument?
Elsewhere Benacquista’s creations, cruising along to the easier clichés of courtship, could benefit from a more muscular imagination. Of course when the philosopher Philippe attracts a world-famous model two-thirds his age, he is at first enthralled by her beauty and celebrity. But we aren’t exactly surprised later when she bores him with her lack of maturity and intellect.
Though Benacquista’s insights on ordinary men in The Thursday Night Men feel genuine, their portrayal doesn’t always feel as though it belongs to the characters. Too bad these Thursday night sessions and the men who attend them belong to an author who all too fervently wants us to understand his interpretation of them. That’s a detriment to this otherwise thoughtful and entertaining read.