For almost 30 years, Larry ZoIf has buzzed the Canadian body politic like a gadfly, with a unique brand of humor that is at once irreverent, coarse and
self-consciously ethnic. It is also very insightful—and funny. Indeed, as an author (Dance of the Dialectic, Survival of the Fattest) and CBC Television producer and radio pundit (This
large cast of characters (their names include Coke Lavish, Valiant McHaggis, Yakov Weisman and Dr. Redbelly) who range from poolsharking con artists to British Israelites, from quarrelsome rabbis to socialists of various denominations.
Exploiting his home town’s reputation as the onetime hotbed of Canadian radicalism, Zolf satirizes religious politics in the “Kosher War” sequence, one of the book’s cleverest vignettes. In it, outraged Orthodox rabbis and their disciples picket butcher shops defying
Hour Has Seven Days), Zolf’s comedic style owes much to the rapid-fire, one-liner tradition of the Borscht Belt. But his targets are those of classic satire itself: sex, religion, politics, money and public institutions—all well represented in his latest book, Scorpions for Sale. Like the author’s scatter-gun approach, however, the book is a hit-and-miss affair. When Zolf is good (his openly disguised alter ego, Daniel Shtarker, is described as “The Nose that Walks like a Man”), he is very good; but when he is bad (as when two flat-chested girls become the teenage Shtarker’s “bosom” companions), he is merely sophomoric.
Billed as a fictional biography, Scorpions for Sale is a series of comic sketches tracing the life of Shtarker/Zolf from his Winnipeg childhood in the 1930s and 1940s to middle age in contemporary Toronto, where he enjoys a career in broadcasting. The first half of the book, offering a colorful portrait of north-end Winnipeg’s largely Jewish community during and after the Second World War, is more coherent—and more satisfying. It features a
their dietary hegemony. The rabbis’ victory is guaranteed when the left-wing Yiddish paper, the Jewish Street Fighter, editorializes, “The kosher law may be sacred to some, but the picket line must be sacred to all.”
However, much of the book is dominated by Shtarker’s father, Menachem. Combative and outspoken, the Lithuanian-born Menachem is a proud Canadian and lapsed socialist who is the Street Fighter’s chief ad salesman and features writer. He is also Daniel’s most important mentor, telling him that “the writing of fiction is a dangerous profession,” but adding that “an untold story is like an abortion—it’s a denial of life.” Daniel’s frequently uneasy relationship with his father provides a serious subtext to the book’s comic surface. That tension is most evident when Daniel woos the stunning Dahlia Devon, a “shiksa,” or gentile girl, whom he meets in Winnipeg. Menachem tries to dissuade Daniel with guilt and logic: “Mixed marriages don’t work,” he says. “She’ll wake up in the middle of the night craving—pork!” Being his father’s son, Daniel does not listen.
He marries Dahlia and embarks on a successful CBC TV career in Toronto. His job takes him to such places as Washington, D.C., where he stands just two urinals away from then-VicePresident Richard Nixon in a congressional washroom and observes that “Nixon was circumcised and was just short of six inches in length — But he made up for it in width.” And to Ottawa, where Daniel rubs shoulders with prominent Canadian politicians including thenPrime Minister Pierre Trudeau, for whom he writes humorous speeches—evidently necessary for someone whose expression was “halfSocrates, half-Machiavelli.”
Elsewhere, in the second part of the book, Zolf is sometimes less restrained, as he flits around goading scandal-ridden politicians, freeloading senators, the CBC and members of the Canadian business and cultural elite, such as legendary tycoon Samuel Bronfman and writer Margaret Atwood.
That flitting around, however, is one of the book’s main problems: with so many targets, Zolf does not always draw blood. And while much humor derives from Zolf’s inventive use of Yiddish words and expressions, much is also lost on those unfamiliar with them. Still, Scorpions for Sale is also a witty and unrepentantly frank exposé of author Zolf’s anxiety-ridden psyche. Its highly personal element reinforces the conventional wisdom that comedy is the public expression of a private darkness. Referring to both parts of that dialectic near the end of the book, Shtarker comments, “Some Canadians say I’m a national institution, others say I should be put in one.” Chances are that Larry Zolf agrees—with both views.
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