Kvetchy But Unbowed

Joshua Then and Now

by Mordecai Richler
Knopf, 435 pp., $11.95

Mordecai Richler’s characters could never be convicted of loitering. After scuffling away their boyhoods on Montreal’s St. Urbain Street—scratching obscenities into the walls of drugstore phone booths, lusting after girls who shoot by, cradling schoolbooks against their pert breasts—Richler’s working-class Jews are catapulted into a sea of hostile goys, who dip and dart like sharks. “Our world was rigidly circumscribed,” writes Richler in his collection of reminiscences, The Street. “Outside, where they ate wormy pork, beat the wives for openers, didn’t care a little finger if the children grew up to be doctors, we seldom ventured, and then only fearfully.” Fear turns to envy and resentment once the St. Urbain irregulars compete in college and conference rooms with these cool, lean, crisply dressed Gentiles. “A plague on all the goyim, that’s my motto,” a scrap-yard owner tells Duddy Kravitz in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, drawing a finger across his throat to indicate his attitude toward even his best customer. So after Duddy screws everyone in his path to hit it rich, he still isn’t able to relax; he gloats, schemes, always suspects the worst. He’s even unfaithful to his adoring wife, explaining that she’s bound to be unfaithful to him eventually—“This way I get my licks in first.” It’s this air of hustle and betrayal that gives Richler’s fiction its nervous, horny hum.

Like Richler’s previous novel, St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now is about a minor-league Jewish celebrity whose life ignominiously caves in. In St, Urbain’s Horseman, a movie-TV director named Jake Hersh finds himself in the docket for aiding and abetting the sodomy-rape of a German au pair girl; he has waking nightmares in which “big goysy queens” goose him on the way to dinner. Joshua Shapiro, journalist and Canadian Broadcasting talking-head, is married to a sexy, bronze-limbed shiksa named Pauline, who arouses his libido whenever she scampers down to the tennis court in her smart white outfits. Even with three kids and a successful career, Joshua finds himself at the age of forty-seven glumly sliding into a middle-age slump. Joshua notes regretfully that his drooping stomach now blocks his view of his penis. He resolves to flatten his stomach by his forty-eighth birthday so he can greet it with a jaunty hello. “Good morning, big boy.”

Sagging flesh is the least of Joshua’s woes, however. As the novel opens, Joshua, recuperating from cracked ribs and multiple fractures, discovers that he has become a martyr-hero to homosexuals up and down North America because of an alleged affair with the novelist Sidney Murdoch. A photograph showing the two of them kissing appears in Christopher Street, followed by pages of excerpts from an erotic correspondence the two of them concocted as a larky scam two decades earlier in London. (Splashed around the excerpts are advertisements for macho gay gear: “The Jac-Pack is a hot hole you can really get into! Like natural flesh, it surrounds your every nerve ending with erotic sensations.”) Also in the mail is…

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