It has been widely acknowledged that Marie-Claire Blais (A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange) is the most gifted writer to have emerged from French-Canada -- both lovely books. Here she has left the shuttered world of orphanages and dirtpoor farms for the streets of Montreal where the recalcitrant poverty is just as terrible -- its ""truth was like a bad smell clone up in lace."" But there are lots of contemporary riffs in these St. Lawrence Blues -- ""the new France"" contemptuous of the old; the workers and students and militants of the capitalists and petits bourgeois; and the influence of the Church subsiding in the face of current catechisms -- such as the National Front of Womanhood. Circulating from a cheap boarding house room to an artist's studio to a rubber factory, from the Dancing Cat to the Spaghetti at All Hours, are an assortment of characters: Papillon the writer and his lawyer-friendcollaborator; Papineau who revives a sick child by reciting Marx; old Baptiste laid off at the Rubber Company but refusing to attend the deathbed of his son (the most affecting closing scene); Mimi the stipper, and particularly Ti-Pit, which means ""little nothing,"" who finally grows up to his real name Abraham Lemieux after the revolutionary demonstration and his young friend's death. No one probably knows better this native joual scene and language but, as a novel -- however deliberately -- this is far more sporadic and less inductive than the earlier books.