“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 …