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book review

The author Don Gillmor in Toronto on March 26, 2013. His new novel is “Mount Pleasant.”Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Well, Jim Flaherty will be pleased. Canada's Finance Minister has been harping about household debt for months now. Or is it years? It's hard to tell.

He drones on about it – the amount, the increase, the prevalence, its permissiveness, the danger, the worry, the possible doom. But who can really take in the message from a government guy in a suit when the problem of debt is really a huge and complex psychological issue about expectations for how we feel we should be able to live – hopefully, in a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house with a nice backyard? Flaherty is like a schoolmarm warning you about the perils of sex. Good luck with that.

What's far more entertaining is a look at the emotional underpinnings of our obsession with wanting more, no matter how much we can't afford it. In his new novel, Mount Pleasant, Don Gillmor writes the perfect, hilarious send-up of the Toronto obsession with money, real estate and status. This is a book that makes you laugh with (and at) the characters but also, sheepishly, at yourself, because so much of what Gillmor describes is part of the urban collective conscience.

Or rather, I should say, the collective subconscious. There's a lot we don't want to admit to ourselves when we're swept up in the middle-class delusion of ever-rising expectations.

Harry Salter is a middle-aged professor who has been coasting along with his mortgage, line of credit and Visa bills on the assumption that he will inherit a small fortune when his father dies, which will set everything right. But then he does die, and Salter discovers that his father was nearly broke at the end.

The news is the nadir of his midlife funk. All his bright boomer hopes are tanking, a series of diminishing returns. His long marriage to Gladys is in a serious lull. His son, Benjamin, seems like a stranger. (Parenting, for all its good intentions and diligence, can sometimes be as unpredictable an investment as shares in the stock market.) They may have to sell the house, that bedrock of identity.

To make matters more confusing, Salter was born to wealthy parents. He grew up in Rosedale, the pretty, leafy Toronto neighbourhood of brittle, WASPy entitlement. His ancestors are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. His greatest burden is his white-boy idea of what his future would hold. And it's not just his lack of inheritance that has made him lose his sense of worth. The whole world is topsy-turvy. What was once a great asset – being a WASP – is now a liability, out of step with the realigned cultural hierarchy.

The story unfolds on a strong, plot-driven backbone of a whodunit – or whotookit – as Salter sets out to unravel what happened to his father's money. Something must have. He was a conservative investment executive at a money-management firm that specialized in safeguarding old money. Along the way, there are meditations on the nature and meaning of money: "It sluiced around the world like bilge water. It was vast and abstract, unanchored by gold."

And this: "You don't see it. That's the beauty. It's invisible, It's moving through this room right now, millions, the molecules traceless. It's silent, and everywhere it goes it takes something."

A cast of perfectly drawn, colourful characters makes the journey a hilarious comment on how money – the lust for it, loss of it, and possession of it – shapes personality. Gillmor has a gift for spare, precise dialogue between people (alive and dead) but also between Salter and the imaginary voice of his bowel during his colonoscopy. You may never eat again with the same degree of disregard for what Mr. Bowel has to endure.

Gillmor has only recently made the transition into fiction. (His debut novel, Kanata, was published to critical acclaim in 2010.) And we should be glad he has. With the same keen eye that made him one of Canada's most celebrated profile writers for magazines such as Saturday Night and Toronto Life, Gillmor is like a portrait painter who knows exactly which part of the anatomy to draw attention to in order to illuminate character.

We see the left hand of Prescott Lunden, a former colleagues of Salter's father at the firm and a paragon of practised nobility, as he places it on the polished wood of his desk and studies it at length, during a conversational lull. We take in Dick Ebbetts, a loathsome stockbroker – but "valuable savant" – with his stubby hands and bad suits. A car salesman has a face "as wide as a prairie wheat field, his eyes separated by an unfortunate span." The kicker? "His teeth weren't up to salesman standards."

Salter's mother, Felicia, strides easily onto the page in all her gin-soaked Rosedalean splendour, her tongue a lethal weapon of well-aimed, debilitating put-downs. And there's a German interior designer named Fassblut, who has dramatic glasses, close-cropped silver hair and a tendency to spout the most ludicrous observations about expensive kitchen renovations: "The spacing of the geometry so often ignores the human," he avers.

Read this book, and laugh. Debt is the new death. We all experience it, and we all have to face it – eventually. But who knew it could be such a delightful page-turner?

Sarah Hampson is a columnist with The Globe and Mail.