Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The latest novel in the Randall Moore book-of-the-month club: Barney's Version.

Mordecai Richler was around for a long time in Canada. He has become so engrained in our culture that we are forcing kids, in school, to read the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. When I was in school, I resented the "forced to read" portion of English class, and I managed to get by on the tests and the book reports without ever reading the book itself. It was only years later, after my Dad gave me a copy of the Incomparable Atuk, that I developed an appreciation for the works of Mr. Richler, and set out to read Duddy Kravitz on purpose. Turns out it was a fantastic book, and I immediately regretted not having read it while in school. Same goes for Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Lord of the Flies, A Tale of Two Cities, Gulliver's Travels, King Lear, and countless other books I thought I was too clever to actually read. Kids - when they give you a book in school, read it. It might actually be very good.

Richler was still going strong toward the end of his life, and his last book, Barney's Version, is one of his best. It takes place all over the world, but remains centred in Montreal. Many characters from Duddy Kravitz keep showing up, including Kravitz himself, who we get to see now as an older man, still running his scams, still being a fairly despicable human being. But he shows up maybe three times in the whole book, and is incidental to the plot, at best. This story centres around Barney Panofski, a bitter old man who is telling the story of his life. His old friend turned sworn enemy, Terry McIver, has written his own memoirs, in which he accuses Panofski of murder. Barney won't take this lying down, so he is doing the same - hence, Barney's Version. Throughout the book, he is constantly forgetting things, or at least remembering them wrong, and so there is this great device richler uses where Barney's son, who is editing the memoirs for his father, puts corrections in footnotes at the bottom of each page.

It's a wonderful story told by a gloriously bitter old man. Barney pines for his third ex-wife, hates McIver with a passion, and writes bitter, angry, anonymous letters to various people and institutions. These letters, while malicious and in some cases quite vile, are at the same time cheeky and hilarious, and show us Barney's true colours. While he is not a very likeable guy, he is also not detestable, and he is a character that we identify with, whether we want to or not. His story takes us all over the world, from his time in Europe with his best friend, Boogie, and his then-friend McIver, to his aging days as schlock-TV producer here in Canada, working on a show called McIver of the RCMP. Other friends crop up throughout the book - a Hollywood movie producer, a famous artist, a dead feminist icon who happens to be Barney's first wife, and his best friend Boogie, who although he has few moments in the book itself, is the central character in the story. You see, it is Boogie that Barney is accused of murdering.

Not just accused, mind you, but actually arrested and tried for the killing. But since there is no body, and Boogie was a notorious gambler and flake and drug user, Barney remains convinced throughout the book that he will show up somewhere and clear his name. But this never takes place, and by the end of the book, we're left wondering a little - did he actually do it? The final few pages of the novel are what really struck me. I finally understood that the main gist of the whole read was one of absurdity, as when Barney's lawyer pulls a stunt in the courtroom that I once saw on Matlock, an urban legend courtroom trick, or the final sentence of the book which is the biggest urban-legend-come-to-life moment I have read in a book, possibly ever. At first, it made me annoyed. All this, great read and a fantastic novel, boiled down to a third-grade punchline? But on closer examination, it merely reinforces the bizarreness of Barney's life and the absurd nature of the book itself, an undertone that was difficult to pick up most of the time throughout the novel. A great read, I highly recommend Barney's Version, a classic in Canadian literature.

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