“I dislike most people I have ever met,” says the leading character of the latest of Mordecai Richler’s tales about smart, ambitious Jewish-Canadian men at war with their culture. Barney’s Version is wildly comic, but as with most good satire those who make fun of others also mock themselves. Richler’s anti-heroes suffer from a kind of Samson complex, as if compelled to pull down the temple even though they are inside it at the time. Barney’s Version, Richler’s tenth novel, is as usual almost universally offensive—to both French- and Anglo-Canadians, assimilated Jews, feminists, black activists, liberals, right-wingers, the ignorant young and their querulous elders, politicians, writers, and anyone else claiming special consideration, but it also contains some surprises.
Barney Panofsky calls his autobiographical narrative “the true story of my wasted life.” Now (like Richler) in his late sixties, Barney has plenty of money and the usual worries about heart, memory, and the urinary tract. He eats unwisely, indulges in too many malt whiskies and Cuban cigars, and despises not only the nameless multitudes whose folly outrages him but most of his acquaintances too. He tells us that he was born in Montreal in 1928, the son of a cynical, lecherous police inspector who was too short to realize his dream of being a Mountie and died of heart failure on a massage parlor table. As for Barney’s mother, she was more interested in soap operas and comic strips than in her own family. His father once told him he was “an accident” whom they’d named after Barney Google. One sees why animosity became his ruling passion.
Barney grew up streetwise in Montreal’s working-class ghetto. He barely finished high school, never went to college, spent his young manhood shooting pool, waiting tables, chasing girls, and rooting passionately for the Canadiens. He is a TV producer, not a writer—indeed he despises “creative” people (“I’ve never known a writer or a painter anywhere who wasn’t a self-promoter, a braggart, and a paid liar of a coward”)—and he admits to “no artistic pretensions whatsoever” beyond his fantasies of being a song-and-dance man in the old music halls of Montreal.
Richler wants to have things both ways. Barney is supposed to be a rough, uneducated Jew from the Montreal streets who rebukes cultural pretensions of all sorts; but he also wants the readers of his memoir to be sophisticated enough to appreciate his rebuke. So Barney is both an unrepentant low-brow and a literary autodidact who in his youth worked his way up from Liberty magazine and J.P. Marquand’s “Mr. Moto” stories to “Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertie and Alice, as well as our own Morley Callaghan.” He quotes appreciatively from Gibbon and Dr. Johnson in their grimmer moods; his son Michael reports finding attempts at short stories, a play, and a novel among his father’s papers. If his reading never got far beyond the moderns, he seems in his autobiography to have anticipated postmodernism, with its suspect narrators, loopy digressions and rewinds, flashbacks and fast-forwards, and lies.
In 1950, Barney’s memoir tells us, he took his modest savings and set sail for the Left Bank, wanting to be an expatriate if not a writer. A “natural-born entrepreneur” like his boyhood pal Duddy Kravitz (who, we hear, has lately been indicted for insider trading), he supported himself abroad as an “exporter” of cheeses, motor scooters, Scotch tweeds, scrap metal, used DC-3’s, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. But his life in Paris centered upon a group of fiercely competitive, mostly American would-be writers and artists subsisting on the GI Bill, remittances from home, and pornography commissions from Maurice Girodias.
Along with some real expatriates of that time and place, Barney’s Paris circle included his first wife, Clara Chambers—of Gramercy Park and Newport (actually, it emerges, Clara Charnofsky of Brighton Beach), a poet, painter, shoplifter, nymphomaniac, and compulsive liar whom he married almost by accident. She cuckolded him with various of his friends and killed herself in 1952, but eventually her work and sad end made her a heroine of radical feminism. A rival Canadian, the pompous careerist Terry McIver, became a celebrated novelist and northern man of letters whose recent autobiography, full of scandalous stories about him, has provoked Barney to write his own.
In Paris, Barney tells us, he came under the spell of “Boogie” Moscovitch, world-class drinker, druggie, gambler, and Don Juan, who had the aura of greatness but published only a few stories in little magazines before he mysteriously vanished in 1960, with his much-touted masterpiece—“the greatest modern American novel yet to be written”—still yet to be written.
Returning to Canada after Clara’s death, Barney staked out his own claim in the badlands between the arts and show biz. His company, Totally Unnecessary Productions Ltd., made awful movies to exploit a tax loophole, before turning to “Canadian-content” TV series for the programming slots chauvinistically reserved for domestic products only. (Some of these, like the maliciously entitled “McIver of the RCMP,” are conventional enough for syndication in the US and Britain too.) New York, London, and Hollywood see him often, and he prospers.
Barney experimented with bourgeois life, buying a big suburban house, trying “to infiltrate the Jewish establishment” as a volunteer fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, and marrying a motor-mouthed Jewish-Canadian Princess whom he got rid of and now refers to only as “the Second Mrs. Panofsky.” The road to Jewish respectability started with a visit to a USA potentate, the clothing manufacturer Irv Nussbaum, who displays in his office a model of his yacht, “the good ship Queen Esther, after Irv’s wife, not the Biblical Miss Persia.”
“I’m going to trust you with just a few cards to begin with,” said Irv. “But listen up. Rules of the game. You must never visit your target in his office, where he is king shit and you’re just another shmuck looking for a handout. If you run into him in the synagogue, you can butter him up with Israel’s needs, but it’s no good putting the touch on him there. Bad taste. Money changers in the temple. Use the phone to schedule a meeting, but the time of day you get together is of the utmost importance. Breakfasts are out, because maybe his wife wouldn’t let him bang her last night, or he didn’t sleep because of heartburn. The ideal time is lunch. Pick a small restaurant. Tables far apart. Some place you don’t have to shout. Make it eyeball to eyeball. Shit. We’ve got a problem this year. There’s been a decline in the number of anti-Semitic outrages.”
Eventually Barney married Miriam Greenberg, whom he met and fell in love with in 1959, at his wedding to the second Mrs. P., and with whom he spent thirty happy years and had three children before his talent for screwing up triumphed yet again.
Such is the life that Richler carefully recounts in flashbacks and fast cuts, reflecting Barney’s own confusions or deceptions. Unable to write fiction, he is at least a notable liar (“burnisher,” he likes to say), until Alzheimer’s stops him. When his narrative breaks off, the pedantic Michael explains in an afterword that his father, after carefully arranging his financial affairs and making generous bequests to family, friends, and charities, now reposes comfortably but mindlessly in the King David Nursing Home.
Michael, a big-time investor who believes in detailed research, has added to Barney’s manuscript many footnotes correcting its many factual errors. Barney’s story is indeed full of slips, some of which he’s aware of—he gets all mixed up, for example, about what he recalls as a novel by Mary McCarthy called The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit, but in time he distinguishes McCarthy from Sloan Wilson, Brooks Brothers from Gray Flannel, suit from shirt. And some of his errors surely were, as his fond daughter Kate tells her brother, “traps baited just for you.”
But there are traps for us too. Not all the errors Michael detects are erroneous; when, for example, Barney has his father reading Playboy in 1959, the note says, “Actually, the first issue of Playboy did not appear until December 1963,” but this is wrong by about a decade. Michael also misses real errors, as when Barney recalls “strolling down the boulevard St.-Germain-des-Prés.”
Are we to think that Michael, like any know-it-all, is at continual risk of embarrassing himself? Or that, whatever Michael does or doesn’t notice, Barney can’t be trusted with even the smallest details of his own life? But if the lapses are mysterious, the effect is curiously successful. Trivial or important, some of the details of our lives do slip away from us in time, and a memoir written in old age may in a way be more truthful for forgetting or mixing up something that was once the truth.
Not just personal but public history is at risk in Barney’s Version. A memoir, real or fictional, of the past five decades might be expected to reflect more of their public eventfulness. They may have seemed less eventful in Canada, I suppose, where the cold war perhaps felt less chilling, Korea and Vietnam less harrowing, national politics less melodramatic and shrill than they did down here. But whatever the reason, Barney’s story seems only nominally in touch with the history of his times. We hear that Boogie Moscovitch was a World War II vet; the Quemoy-Matsu affair, the American civil rights movement, Watergate, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau get passing, sometimes inaccurate, notice; and Barney loves to mock Quebec separatism. But if public history occasionally clears its throat in his story, it has small effect on his life, and he treats the past rather as Boogie planned to do in his novel, in which the Titanic was to make an uneventful, “boring” maiden voyage, Franz Ferdinand to escape assassination at Sarajevo (though the Germans invaded Belgium anyway), and Lenin, busy explaining surplus value to the story’s hero in a Zurich cafe, to miss the train to the Finland station and lose out to Trotsky.
Barney, whom Richler presents as Falstaffian in his pleasures and his cynicism, appraises great events mainly for their entertainment value. When he mentions T.S. Eliot, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Admiral Byrd, FDR, JFK, and Freud, they appeal to him most for their human weaknesses—“say, the story of T.S. Eliot having his first wife locked up in the bin, possibly because she had written some of his best lines.” Nothing delights him more than “a biography of one of the truly great that proves that he or she was an absolute shit.” Few of us are entirely immune to such low forms of Schadenfreude, but it can, as it does for Barney, make one’s own private failings easier to live with.
Michael’s editing prepares the way for the book’s long-deferred account of the mystery at the center of Barney’s life, how the disappearance (or murder?) of Boogie Moscovitch led directly to the longed-for breakup of Barney’s second marriage, and thus made possible his happy life with Miriam. Boogie turned up in New York in 1958, after exotic wanderings in places like Marrakesh, Srinigar, and Kyoto, with the great work still unfinished. Finagling an advance from Random House, he lived it up in the big city before taking refuge at Barney’s cabin in the Laurentians to kick his heroin habit. He took to his bed, where Barney surprised “my wife and my best friend” (the cliché enchants him) naked together.
After the distraught wife rushed off to her mother’s, the best friend and the host had some drinks while they talked things over. In Barney’s version, he got out his father’s old service revolver and drunkenly fired it, more or less playfully, over Boogie’s head, as the latter staggered down to the lake to snorkel. Barney then fell asleep on the couch, he says, and when a low-flying plane woke him up, he found no sign of Boogie on land or in the water. Neither did the police, luckily, and Barney’s prosecution for murder failed for lack of a corpse. Everyone has wondered about this story, as does Barney himself, after three decades. He has no memory of shooting Boogie, but did the man drown or just go away? Maybe he’ll even show up again.
Whatever happened then, he was happy with Miriam. She’s beautiful, sexy, understanding, ten years younger than he, and not too Jewish; their children are bright, affectionate, and successful. But the Miriam he often calls “my heart’s desire” is, like everyone else in the book except himself, more a projection of his ego than a free-standing person, as in his sentimental thoughts about selling his house after she leaves him:
I could not abide the idea of strangers in what had once been our bedroom. Or some mod con yuppie bitch installing a microwave oven in the kitchen where Miriam had baked croissants to perfection, or cooked osso buco even as she helped Saul with his homework and kept an eye on Kate banging pots together in her playpen…. I didn’t want some oaf playing Nirvana at ten thousand decibels in the room where Miriam had retired to the chaise longue at three a.m. to nurse Kate, while she listened to Glenn Gould, the sound turned down low so as not to waken me.
If his image of ideal domesticity seems like a magazine advertisement, he at least sounds straightforward about himself: “I dislike most people I have ever met, but not nearly so much as I am disgusted by the Rt. Dishonorable Barney Panofsky.” How could a woman like Miriam love a man like him? His habitual boozing with his cronies, along with her regrets for the career at the CBC she gave up for him and her fears that he might be just like her philandering father, gradually undermined their marriage. When he drunkenly blundered into an affair and confessed it, she divorced him and married (as Barney describes him) a priggish, routinely radical American-born professor, who came to Canada in the Sixties to escape the draft.
As he looks back, the only lesson Barney can draw from his life is: “Never tell the truth. Caught out, lie like a trooper. The first time I told the truth led to my being charged with murder. The second time cost me my happiness.” This view has the ring of authorial sympathy, but for a Richler hero, Barney has unusually complex feelings about himself and those he claims to loathe. He can allow that his dreadful second wife had a comic flair and an “appetite for life” when they first met, and that her pretentious mock-WASP property developer father was also an affectionate husband and parent who died of cancer with stoic dignity. He admits to himself that the charismatic Boogie was in his later days an arrogant, spiteful, deeply unlovable man.
It’s not that the years have mellowed Barney or given him a philosophic turn of mind. In fact they’ve sharpened the animosity and cynicism of his youth, and if some of his jokes are adolescent ones, they acknowledge the survival in us, even when old, of that immature, untamed, unwise self which is the parent of any maturity worth having. He still has remarkable zest for showing himself at his most sophomoric, as when he sends phony grant applications to the corrupt feminist foundation that celebrates Clara’s memory; he seeks support for a Black Hebrew movement in Israel that’s developing “a rap Haggadah, inspired by the poetry of Iced T [sic],” and for a group (Chaps Resolutely Against Prejudice, or CRAP) that seeks a female contender for the heavyweight title of Mike Tyson.
While Richler’s portrayals of malice are vigorous as ever, he can also suggest how much age matters, at least to the old; the approach of infirmity and death do concentrate the attention. When, near the end, he sees his old high school English teacher, the star of his primal erotic fantasies ever since but now a gnarled octogenarian, taking part in a geriatric demonstration for wheelchair access to the bus terminal, this “Hieronymus Bosch sprung to life” arouses not his scorn but a shocked recognition of kinship.
Public and personal history incidentally converge in the disclosure of Boogie’s fate. The mountain on which his remains are found in 1996 has recently been renamed for a Quebec separatist hero whom Barney despised as a racist. Since the spot is near Panofsky’s cabin, and it appears the deceased had either been “severely beaten with a blunt instrument, or had fallen from a considerable height,” Barney’s guilt at first seems confirmed. But in the book’s last paragraph Michael figures out how Boogie accidentally if bizarrely died. And he grieves that the now mindless Barney will never learn the truth: “Oh my God, I thought, breaking into a sweat, I’d better call Saul. I owe Kate an apology. But, Oh God, it’s too late for Barney. He’s beyond understanding now. Damn damn damn.”
But this cunning finale is less appalling than Michael supposes. What Barney has missed is a dark cosmic joke, a new proof of the perverse pointlessness of “truth” as literalists like his son conceive it. When Michael complains to Barney’s lawyer that he and his siblings “have a right to know the truth” about their father’s guilt or innocence, he gets a lawyerly but wise answer: “The truth is he was your father.” It scarcely matters that some unexpected circumstances proved that while Barney enjoyed being obnoxious, he was not a killer, and Michael’s devotion to the “facts” cannot teach him anything very important. Whatever the years have done to Barney Panofsky, they’ve added some depth to Richler’s power to outrage and amuse.