Post Your Opinion
Belligerently Contemning the Sacred Cows
by Liz Springate

Mordechai Richler's Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports and Opinions is a rich collection of what the author refers to as "miscellaneous pieces that I wrote to support myself". The essays, twenty-eight in all, constellate around topics near and dear to the writer's heart and are organized into four sections: "Books and Things", "Going Places", "Sports", and "Politics". Ever the satirist, Richler casts an ironic eye on every subject he handles, but as sardonic as he gets, he remains amused and enthusiastic.

Entitled "Writing for the Mags", Richler's introduction is not to be missed. Far from dry, this humorous preamble functions as much as an "apprenticeship of Mordechai Richler" as it does a glimpse into the journalism industry of the U.K., the U.S., and Canada over the past forty years. Not only does Richler rate editors on such criteria as "how many long-distance phone calls they allow" or "where they take you to lunch", he also infuses this prelude with hilarious anecdotes, such as being paid twice for an article that was never written, or the only time, in forty years, he was ever sued.

"Books and Things" is a grab bag, the pieces varying in format and covering books, writings, and biographies on Sam Bronfman, the Reichman Brothers, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, and Morley Safer, among others. Although the book jacket warns that Richler's wit is "combative" and that he "regularly offend[s] some", he all but sidesteps controversial issues in "Supersex" and "Sexual Harassment". Albeit written with Richler's well-known wit and searing sarcasm, these pieces are more embarrassing than offensive, even bordering on the juvenile and amounting to nothing more than low-dose rants. Levity prevails, however, and the high point of this section comes with "Just Find a Million Readers and Success will Surely Follow", which finds Richler bemusedly scrutinizing the best-sellers of the "man's man", Tom Clancy, and the "sudsy" Danielle Steele in a "shameless" attempt to unlock the secrets of how to make it big.

Globe-trotting in "Going Places", Richler takes stock in Germany, Kenya, Marrakech, South Africa, Egypt, England, and Canada over a period of almost twenty years. "Germany 1978", originally published under the title, "Jew in Germany", for Weekend Magazine, is one of the most moving articles of the entire collection, troubled as Richler is by the intertwining of German and Jewish history. Richler registers his contempt for Western tourism and the chasm between opulence and penury in "Marrakech", "Egypt's 11th Plague", and "Sol Kertzner's Xanadu". Taken together with the autobiographical "London Then and Now" and "Pedlar's Diary", these pieces, while they range broadly, form a cohesive unit of "writing in the field".

The articles in "Sports" are finely written and Richler's affection is felt throughout. Whatever the subject matter, he always takes a fresh angle. For instance, in "Gordie", Richler laments the retirement career of Gordie Howe as an Amway salesman. He examines double careers such as that of player/manager Pete Rose, and he looks behind the scenes where the real game is played, in the career history of Canadian wrestling promoter Eddie Quinn. Richler's "sometimes embarrassing" devotion to baseball is truly touching in "From Satchel through Hank Greenberg..." as he plucks out and admires moments from the lives and times of these baseball greats. Richler broadens the scope of "sports writing" in "Kasparov", which looks at the "dirty work, real or suspected, that prevails in the world of international chess". Decidedly, if sport is one of Richler's passions, it shows.

Richler caps the collection with three power-packed political essays in "Politics". Not without humour (I found myself chuckling the hardest during these), the final pieces traipse through the Canadian political [be]wilderness of the past decade. "Audrey! Audrey! Audrey!", which centres on the NDP leadership convention of 1989, is one of the most hilarious in the entire book, and "Bye Bye Mulroney", which positively roasts Brian Mulroney and a good many other Tories, is one of the most scorching. The last essay, "From the Ottawa Monkey House...to Referendum", is written with sincerity and common sense as Richler traces the separatist politics that riddle his beloved Canada.

Taken in its entirety, Belling the Cat is an abundant and expansive collection of the author's work. What's difficult to shake off, however, is a shadow of disappointment in a few of the pieces. It is that Richler's so-called "irreverence", his celebrated "contempt for sacred cows" is more belligerent than "merciless", and one is left to wonder if such phrases cover a multitude of opinionated ills. Nonetheless, for witty, clear-sighted, and impeccable writing, there is little doubt-Richler is one of the best. 

Liz Springate studies English at York University. She also freelances as a graphic designer and teaches at the International Academy of Design in Toronto.


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