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by Mordecai Richler
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by John Mills
MORDECAI RICHLER is a good, professional, lower-upper-mid-cult novelist, which means that over a long period of time he has produced a series of rich and entertaining works of fiction. It also means that while he is not Proust or even Hemingway on the one hand, he is not Robert Ludlum or Stephen King on the other. As a middlebrow, he is neither an intellectual nor a literary theorist, and there is no reason why he should be.
Despite low expectations, however, it is still disconcerting to encounter Richler as essayist, book reviewer, and columnist. It`s not only that he has little of particular interest to say, that his world-view seems run-of-the-mill, that there is nothing startling about any of his opinions. These factors are not essential to the prose writer, and Richler displays compensating virtues: intelligence, liberal views, and a highly developed bullshit detector. Still, such qualities, admirable in themselves, are not quite enough to make him effective as a writer of non-fiction. His talents lie more in the creation of energetic, fast-paced narrative coloured by dramatic irony and comic anecdotes than in the subtle development of an idea.
Nevertheless there lurk, in some of these occasional pieces written for a variety of magazines ranging from the left-brain New York Times Book Review to the onehand Playboy, the seeds of interesting themes. "Deuteronomy:` for instance, begins promisingly with a series of brief and entertaining sketches of childhood experiences with the Torah, and ends well with the story of a young scoffer named Ornstein "opposed to all kinds of religious mumbo-jumbo":
... A scientist of some renown, he always seems to be heading for or just coming back from an important international conference in Tokyo, London, or Milan. Last year he was in Jerusalem for the first time, and he went to see the Wailing Wall. "And you know what?" he said. I burst into tears. I wept and I wept."
The anecdote is a good one and comes at the end of a series of more or less idle reflections with unexpected force. But its power is also vitiated by a characteristic obscurity. Ornstein`s story could, for instance, point to the comedy of a hardnosed
rationalist giving in to emotion founded on superstition; or it could just as easily be celebrating the triumph of tribal feeling over cosmopolitanism. The shortstory writer would leave the ambiguity where it stands; the essayist would delight in teasing away at it, unravelling it, their tying the threads into different configurations.
The failure, and I believe it is a failure, lies not so much in a sort of mental laziness, nor in any irresolution as to what genre Richler is attempting, but deep within his style. While the book is still opened at "Deuteronomy," it is worth considering a typical passage:
Moses ... reminds (the Jews) of what they had done to Si-hon, king of Hesha-bon, and Og, the king of Bashan, utterly destroying rile men, the women and the children of every city. Or, put in today`s sanitized military idiom, he recalled hook, they once had pacified the countryside.
Once again I lose a sense of the author. By invoking the obscene vocabulary of modern war, is he trying to ridicule and discount the Hebrew text? Or the Pentagon jargon itself? Or maybe there are third and fourth levels of meaning that have passed me by. Half the problem is that Richler seems infatuated with Prolespeak: "Possibly, the children of Israel don`t deserve the freehold after all. Maybe, all things considered, He fingered the wrong bunch" is a good example. There is no reason, of course, why a writer shouldn`t mix the mandarin with the vernacular -- this is one of Saul Bellow`s great strengths -- but the danger in such writing lies in the ease with which its exponents can he displaced from the explorations of their own minds towards a Mad Magazine view of the world wherein the street-wise know the score` good writing is mocked as fake along with decorous speech, and the root motives
of all human activity are located in lust, greed, and self-preservation. Richler`s falsely unpretentious style, in other words, inevitably leads him to a reductive view of his own material.
The temptation to sneer and denigrate also mars the pieces written in reaction to such aspects of the asinine as conspiracy theorists, the writings of Shirley MacLaine, the literary daughters of Ronald Reagan, and books of pop psychology. These essays are slightly more successful, however, because Richler has the good sense to let the mindboggling stupidity of the people he quotes do the work for him without much commentary.
There are readable -- if mostly second hand -- sketches of Orson Welles, John Cheever, Truman Capote, and others, but the most successful essay in the book is about the late S. J. Perelman, a writer with whom Richler might, with some justice, feel a kinship. He quotes Eudora Welty who said of Perelman`s prose that it "is highly complex, deviously organized, the
work of some master brain undoubtedly behind it -- and it is more like jiu-jitsu than any prose most of us have seen." This is true of Perelman and would be wildly untrue if applied to Richler, but the two writers share a delight in the fatuous, a contempt for breaches in reason and common sense, and the satirist`s impulse to castigate for the sheer pleasure of it. In the
last section of the book, subtitled "Journals," watery versions of these elements emerge, though fitfully, as Rchler tries to entertain the reader with stories of life in the Eastern Townships. Here the writing conforms more closely to the mode of the novels: anecdotal, wry, ironic, concerned with revelations of brain lessness and idiosyn crasy done in Richler`s favourite
idiom, beer-parlour demotic. It serves him better in this section than it does in his occasionally attractive but mostly unreflective formal prose.