BOOKS

THE NEW MORDECAI RICHLER: LETHAL... BUT TENDER

DONALD CAMERON May 1 1971

BOOKS

THE NEW MORDECAI RICHLER: LETHAL... BUT TENDER

DONALD CAMERON May 1 1971

BOOKS

THE NEW MORDECAI RICHLER: LETHAL... BUT TENDER

DONALD CAMERON

Take heart, take heart. There is cause to rejoice.

Forget, just briefly, pollution, the FLQ, racism, Indochina, unemployment and other things that go bump in the night. Even in 1971 some good things still happen. For instance, Duddy Kravitz is back.

Now a Toronto millionaire, Duddy is fortyish, balding, grey at the temples, married — but no less Duddy for that. Saint Urbain’s Horseman, however, belongs to his classmate from Fletcher’s Fields High, Jake Hersh, now a London film and TV director on trial for “rape, aiding and abetting sodomy, and possession of cannabis.” The trial is, Jake thinks, his “accounting,” the fulfillment of his “Jewish nightmare,” the gods’ revenge on him for having success, three good kids, beautiful Nancy. “There’s food in the larder, wine in the pantry, money in the bank. His wife is the woman he wants. He enjoys the children.”

Jake feels guilty. Worse yet, nervous. “From the beginning, he had expected the outer, brutalized world to intrude on their little one, inflated with love but ultimately selfserving and cocooned by money. The times were depraved. Tenderness, in one house, he had come to fear, was no more possible, without corruption, than socialism in a single country. And so, from the earliest, halcyon days with Nancy, he had expected the coming of the vandals.”

It’s a different Mordecai Richler. Oh, the lethal satirist is still with us, better than ever, ticking off Jake’s British lawyer, a committed CBC

playwright in Toronto, an American immigration officer, a London literary agent. Or, indeed, an English dinner: “A gluey substance in which toenail-size chunks of meat and walnut and bloated onion floated ...”

And yes, yes, the Dickensian grotesques are there, too: the toilet-selling brother-in-law who ecstatically photographs Harrods’ opulent men’s room; the widow who enters every conceivable contest; Jake’s aunt, old Hanna, feverishly seeking, year after year, her runaway son Joey, the Horseman of the title. Among them Jake himself, obsessed with the Horseman and the Nazis. Obsessed with his own health, his inevitable death. Obsessed by his nightmare.

But Jake is a likable grotesque, an immensely vulnerable human being. And Saint Urbain’s Horseman is Richler’s most eloquent and open novel, a bitter, droll and poignant vision of what it means to be a man now, in a world where Israelis say what Germans used to, where a man finds himself becoming his father, a world that squeezes Jake between “the old and resentful have-everythings and the young know-nothings.” Yet everyone gets his innings, even Uncle Abe, QC, portly pillar of the Montreal Jewish community. Jake remains the spokesman of “the Kerensky generation.” What he stands for, he realizes, “would not fire the countryside: decency, tol-

erance, honor.” Jake Hersh is — oh, horrors! — a liberal.

He is also a Canadian becoming aware of what self-denigration has cost him. Leaving Canada years ago, Jake and his good friend Luke Scott, now a famous writer, had spun off derisory comments.

“I say! I say! What’s happening in Toronto?”

“Exciting things.”

“And Montreal?”

“It’s changing.”

Like Richler, Jake has found Canada useful as a topic that can be treated with wit and ignorance to produce hard cash. But now Jake feels “increasingly claimed” by Canada and remembers his most recent sailing with “a sense of loss, even deprivation and melancholy.” He finds himself “forced to pay the price of the colonial come to the capital.” As his father had blamed the goyim for his own inadequacies, Jake recalls, “so Jake had foolishly held Canada culpable for all his discontents. Coming to London, finding it considerably less than excellent, he was at once deprived of this security blanket.” Pity poor Jake, losing his illusions with his hair, drawn at last to his accounting by the machinations of Harry Stein, accountant (suitably), pornographer, pervert, a vicious little Cockney, tough, unscrupulous and a born loser. In some ways Harry, like the Horseman Joey, is the book’s Fool, the man who tells the unpleasant truth. But Harry, too, is human. “You don’t understand,” he cries to Jake. “I’m not getting enough of anything, don’t you see? And most of the things I want, I’m already too old to enjoy.”

Those moments of candor — new to Richler — reveal

the novel’s strength and honesty. Behind the deft satirist in Richler there has always been a frustrated idealist. If God weren’t dead, Jake remarks, it would be necessary to hang Him. Letting us see the people behind his grotesques, Richler has freed himself to write an absolutely superb novel. “I’ve never said a word against Nancy,” protests Jake’s mother. “And it’s best that you never do,” Jake replies, “because I love her. And so long as she loves me, I cannot be entirely bad.” Love: Saint Urbain’s Horseman is about the elusiveness of love and its fragility. Perhaps its most heartbreaking moment comes when Jake confronts cocky hard-boiled Duddy Kravitz about his wife Marlene. “Duddy, why are you leading her on? She loves you.” “What are you talking, she loves me?” he charged, exasperated. “Who in the hell could love Duddy Kravitz?”

Saint Urbain’s Horseman; Mordecai Ridder; McClelland & Stewart; $7.95.

The Climate Of Power, by Irene Baird, Macmillan of Canada, $6.95. A spare, intelligent novel about an Ottawa bureaucrat, written by a woman who was herself a senior civil servant and knows intimately both the excitements and the absurdities of the mandarin life.

The Party’s Over, by James Johnston, Longmans Canada Limited, $10. This puny litany of The Chief’s final downfall merely proves that no book about John Diefenbaker can be completely uninteresting.

Portrait Of Canada, by Jay and Audrey Walz, McGraw-Hill, $9.50. A New York Times’ correspondent’s astute and evocative assessment of a country he and his wife have learned to cherish, this volume is an excellent primer on Canada. ■