Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (January 27, 2006).
A few years ago, Slate magazine dispatched novelist Gary Shteyngart to Montreal on a death-defying mission: spend five days walking in the footsteps of author Mordecai Richler, living it up like the protagonist of his final novel, Barney’s Version.
The operation, wrote Shteyngart, “involved sampling the favorite vices of Barney Panofsky…Montecristos (the Dominican cigars), medium-fats on rye (a spectacular brisket served at the legendary Schwartz’s Deli), single malts (preferably Macallan whisky), the veal-marrow hors d’oeuvre at L’Express restaurant, XO cognac, marbled rib steaks at Moishe’s Steakhouse, and caffeine.”
By all accounts, Richler did a lifetime of research before creating Barney Panofsky, and Shteyngart met many of the characters who witnessed Richler’s rich living. The barmaid at the author’s favorite haunt told Shteyngart about serving Richler his daily breakfast: espresso, grapefruit, and vodka. Richler, who passed away in 2001, would have turned 75 this month, so it’s an appropriate time to lift a glass of cognac, whiskey, or vodka (all three if you want to do him real justice) and toast the man’s talents.
Richler is often described as the Canadian Philip Roth, and though that’s often a dismissive label, the similarities between the two are worth noting. Both are master satirists who—though not always on the best terms with the Jewish community—are nonetheless unabashedly rooted in it. And very specific Jewish communities, too. For Roth it’s Newark; for Richler, Montreal. Roth and Richler are also known for their political incorrectness and over-sexed prose, and while this sort of writing might seem more appropriate for the young Turks of literature, Roth and Richler created characteristic works after qualifying for their Senior Citizen discounts. Indeed, while Richler’s best-known novel is The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)—later made into a film starring Richard Dreyfus—Barney’s Version (1998) may be his best.
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