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.
Barney’s Version, Panofsky’s fictional memoir, details the eponymous character’s three marriages, his gastronomical and alcoholic excesses, and his life as a suspected murderer. Barney surrounds himself with artists, writers, and media personalities, but he himself has no obvious talents. He does, however, make a small fortune with his television company, Totally Useless Productions, which financially facilitates his hedonism.
Barney is certainly a boor, but he’s utterly irresistible. It speaks to Richler’s talents that our empathy for Barney isn’t diminished by his bad behavior. Even more impressive, in Barney’s Version, content and form merge organically. The novel is not only about Barney; it is molded in his image. Barney is as alive as any literary character I’ve ever encountered, and his vitality fuels the novel. Though Barney’s Version has the pretense of a structure—divided chronologically in accordance with Barney’s three wives—it never remains situated in the same time or place for long. Given its narrator, this is fitting. Barney isn’t emotionally level enough to tell a perfectly linear tale.
It’s risky, if not inappropriate, to make presumptions about a novel’s autobiographical origins. Sure, Richler was about Barney’s age when he wrote him, and sure, Richler knew how to eat, drink, and smoke with the best, but Richler was also known to be kind and quiet. Still, one of Richler’s funniest and most well-known quotes applies equally to Barney Panofsky: “Coming from Canada, being a writer and Jewish as well, I have impeccable paranoia credentials.”
Is Barney Panofsky really Mordecai Richler? Is he his evil twin? This I’ll never know, but I do know one thing: We should be eternally grateful to Mordecai Richler. Barney’s version is a side of the story we were lucky to hear.