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The Womanizer, A Man of his Time

by Rick Salutin
323 pages,
ISBN: 0385259468


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Cogitations of a Serious Womanizer
by Sharon Abron Drache

A Man of His Time would have been a better title for the all-embracing Proustian romp that the novelist, Rick Salutin, delivers in The Womanizer. Similar to A Man of Little Faith, which incidentally won the 1988 Books in Canada First Novel Award, The Womanizer's main turf is ideas, with the added frisson of having been inspired by numerous women, "one night stands", and "repeaters", who enter and exit the protagonist's life. This is somewhat reminiscent of Biblical King Solomon's 300 wives and 700 concubines, except Salutin's hero, Max, stops counting at 150!
Max, who has no last name throughout the novel, is up front and in your face, constantly parading his ploys (both real and imagined), challenging the status quo, and calling to mind guess who¨the journalist, Rick Salutin, in his weekly "On the Other Hand" Globe & Mail columns.
But Max is also a quixotic shadow figure, whose self-definition relies in part on the women who love him, and to quote the Leonard Cohen song, "are passing through" his life. Further, Max is hell-bent on justifying his gritty sexual escapades¨is the head in the penis or the penis in the head? Max is cruder, and the tedious graphic indulgences can distract readers from the novel's wondrously philosophical dialectic. (Imagine reading Rick Salutin's new novel solely for the soft porn!)
The reader's reflection is what Salutin is after, which morphs Max into preacher, teacher, thinker and thought-provoker and we mustn't forget, womanizer, all wrapped into one man of his time.
Max, a freelance economist specializing in John Maynard Keynes, who has selected and reshaped his own preoccupations over five plus decades of life, now examines how change and choice have defined him. You could call Max Salutin's fictional alter ego¨both are persistently irreverent, impractical, and occasionally totally outrageous.
When reviewing Salutin's first novel, A Man of Little Faith, I discovered how much he was shaped by his early religious education, by his studies at Brandeis University where he received a B.A., and at Columbia where he received an MA in Religion. But the kicker is the year he spent at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Salutin had hoped to become a rabbi before he decided to attend The New School of Social Research and return to Toronto to work as a trade union organizer. I mention his rabbinic aspirations because I find The Womanizer like A Man of Little Faith to be a hybrid novel, a blend between a l9th century roman a thFse, and some very accomplished Biblical and Talmudic exegesis, the dialogue of ideas taking priority over plot, in moving the novel along.
But stuff does happen as Max tracks the 50-plus years since the early 1950s with astonishing clarity. Let's begin with his beat on Toronto's Euclid Avenue. "He likes Euclid for its associations: Greece, democracy, reason, science; unlike the many streets in the area that recall Olde Englande (Markham) or a cabinet minister from the Napoleonic Wars (Palmerston). Euclid, now there was a numbers man from an era when quantification didn't exclude moral valuation." Max likes walking¨it's the one movement he can count on, "There is no such thing as a walk, it's always a quest," says Max, who tries to understand what's happening around him, while coming to terms with the biggest truth of all¨accepting that he is not the centre of the universe, only a spec of dust "passing through." But that does not mean that specs of dust do not matter. For Max, it is not finishing the task that counts, but the initial choice to participate, and more importantly, to try to make a difference.
Accordingly, Max chooses to become a freelance economist specializing in leftist issues both globally and within the country he loves best, Canada.
The worst day of young Max's life was the day his parents moved from their shared half-double house in downtown Toronto to a cramped Forest Hill apartment. But for middle-aged Max, it is probably the best thing that ever happened to him.
What does he believe to be his 80-year-old parents' legacy? It's Max, their one and only son, of whom they are wildly proud. Although they may not express their feelings, because they do not quite understand how he turned out to be the Max he is, eternal analyzer and questioner of every value they hold sacrosanct. Young Max always felt secure while growing up in their sixth floor two-bedroom apartment with its faulty elevator, requiring them for some 40-plus years to lug their weekly groceries up the stairs. The crowded apartment was their palace, where Max's dad reigned as tyrannical king and his mother, the quiet nurturing queen.
Only when his father is on his death bed and no longer fully aware of what is happening, does Max's mother dare to open the curtains in their bedroom. Max's father did not like natural light. Why? Because, as his mother confides, his father and her, well into their eighties, had sex three times a week. This causes Max to wonder facetiously whether he possesses more of his father's DNA than he had previously believed.
As the apple falls far or not so far from the tree, Max chooses to be a freelance economist rather than a tenured professor. Could this have anything to do with the fact that his father, who had a regular job, was also a reckless gambler? But it was poker, and the love of one woman that kept Max's father engaged with his life. To his dying day, his father lived by the romantic idea that he could control his life and family like the hand in a card game. Max thinks he knows better¨that the only thing he can control in his life is "passing through" it.
Not until the final chapter in which Max is still walking and thinking does he embrace the nuclear family with a moderate degree of healthy skepticism. He is a thinker from the beginning of the novel to the end¨he thinks, therefore he is.
What is commendable about Max's ruminations is their scope, defining Canadian nationalism and defending what makes us different from our neighbour to the south. Following his graduate studies at Cambridge, Max returns to Canada to comb the country on lecture circuits, expressing his love for his native land. But he is also fiercely proud of being a highly individualized product of provincial Toronto and the world class city it has become. He has been a freelance Keynesian economist most of his life, yet he still wonders why he didn't become an anarchist or a Marxist, especially when he remembers what Polyani, an economist and no slouch, wrote in the middle of the Second World War: "Culture is always the defining force, not economics."
Max wonders whether he has spent his 50-plus years of life being too impressed with the materiality of economics, and whether he is more influenced by the physicality of sex than he ought to be? Max ultimately decides that it is economics, his work, and his love of women that made it possible for a guy like himself to take the thinker's journey, which incidentally, ends in the birthing room of Max's own son.
The curious thing about Salutin is that the journalist in him (he is known as the Globe and Mail's leftie in residence) enriches his novelistic writing. The Womanizer, a man of his time, charts 50-plus years of Canadian fictional territory from a true leftie's POV.
Sharon Abron Drache is an author and journalist based in Ottawa. Her most recent book, The Golden Ghetto, is set in Toronto's Forest Hill Village.
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