Mary Pat Cude - Issue 112

A strange [and truly Canadian] love story

Barney's Version, Mordecai Richier's latest novel, has a wonderful cast of players. Representatives of the raucous tribe of St. Urbain Street, so familiar from the earlier works, are paraded before us once again: there's Jerry Dingleman, a.k.a. The Boy Wonder, fixing things on Schnorrers' Day and, of course, Duddy Kravitz, touchstone of the Richier world, sardonically consoling Barney afterthecollapse of his third marriage. "They're into that now. The libbers. One night you help them with the dishes and the next they go back to college to get a degree and soon enough they're shtupped by some kid." And even the new faces, making their first appearance, are marvellously recognizable and characteristically raw. Men like Detective Inspector Izzy Panofsky, electrifying "twelve stunned people gathered at the long table" during his son's second wedding celebration, jolting them with insights into his days on the morality squad. "Some of them whorehouses was elegantly furnished," he enthuses: "Clean? Rabbi, you could eat off the floor. And, oh, they had beautiful beds and everything was systematically...... This is obstreperous, glorious, belly laugh fun.

Yet, despite the humour and the wonderful characters, Barney's Version initially seems a trifle slow, perhaps even a little lightweight, too much verbal slapstick and too little substance. There is Bamey's first marriage to lying, shoplifting Clara, with her dirty talk and loose ways, weirdly transformed into feminist icon after her grotesque suicide: why on earth would he choose to share his life with such a hopelessly unengaging and self-destructive partner? And then, swiftly thereafter, there is his lightning courtship of "the Second Mrs. Panofsky," a physically attractive, socially pushy, chatterbox compulsive shopper of whom he puzzlingly concedes: "had she not fallen into my hands but instead married a real, rather than a pretend, straight arrow, she would be a model wife and mother today." Whatever possessed him, disentangling himself from the melancholy memory of Clara, to seek refuge here? The reader strains for patience, as Barney once again reconfigures his chameleon skin for the purpose of acquiring his second wife. What is the truth about this "pretend straight arrow?" Barney's vindictive little pranks, his obsession with hockey, his shallow lifestyle, all tricked out to circle around the possibility of his committing a tacky murder: tossed lightly together, it seems a recipe for a quick and superficial read. But watch out! There is Miriam, after all....

Miriam, constant focus of Barney's thoughts, enduring core of his adult being, the third and only beloved wife of "Barney Panofsky's troika," Miriam, Miriam, "my heart's desire." Miriam, "moving with astonishing grace" throughout these pages in her "layered blue chiffon cocktail dress" ("Oh, that face of incomparable beauty. Those bare shoulders.") is everywhere - and yet, strangely nowhere. Her ubiquitous presence is as much spiritual as physical, telling us that something of Barney is deep and true, that there is something of passion we can trust. And what other passions does he have? What things give meaning to his otherwise seemingly shallow existence? These are his "belovedmontreal Canadiens," his "dying city" that he will not leave, his "cherished Quebec" divided in loyalties, and yes, disguise it though he may with supercilious intellectual posturing, his country. "I could rhumba as a latter-day patriot," he says, "sheltering in the Great Cham's last refuge of the scoundrel." But this is no scoundrel. Love of wife, team, city, province and country are oddly woven into the fabric of his life: ethical threads of personal, civic, regional and national pride holding him together - keeping him from despair.

The source of his despair, of course, is the murder. Also ubiquitous, the murder is a constant reminder of what others believed to be the dark and violent underside in the fabric of Barney's life. However, there are surprises. After the body has been recovered, after all of the incriminating evidence has been gathered and presented, in the concluding lines of Barney's Version (almost too late, for us) we discover that this splendid book was not a murder mystery after all. "Oh my God, I thought, breaking into a sweat, I'd better call Saul." Michael, Bamey's firstborn son, is getting it. "I owe Kate an apology. But, oh God, it's too late for Barney." A swirl of details throughout the work, a fleeting reference to a "prizewinning but boring" NFB documentary, the roar of an aircraft, an arcane snippet of forensic information, each blandly innocuous in its context, each separated from all the others by the sprawling style, can come together for us -just as they did for Michael. There was no murder! But if this is not a murder mystery that Mordecai Richier has created, what is it?

It is a love story - a strange and "truly Canadian" love story. And it is about "insensitivity," about not getting it, whatever "it" may happen to be: love of wife, love of friends, love of city, province, country. Barney's Version is a story about the danger of arriving too late: it is an urgent message for our time and place.

We see how Bamey's insensitivity causes his world to fall into ruin, and we grieve with him when he discovers, too late, that "the monster was me." This book, in the main, is about Bamey's inability to read the "early distress signals in his marriage:" Miriam's insistence on getting back in the workforce; her almost pathological intolerance of marital infidelity; and, above all, the increasingly intrusive Blair Hopper "n6 Hauptman", a draft dodger ten years Bamey's junior, one of the many "troubled kids" welcomed into the Panofsky home by Miriam over the years. But the book is about far more than this. It is also about Bamey's inability to read similar distress signals concerning his "beloved Montreal" and his "cherished Quebec." "Why shouldn't we have our own country?" Solange, his Quebecoise friend and associate, asks him. "Because it would destroy mine," he quips. "Your ancestors were stupid. They should have sold Quebec and kept Louisiana." On a more reflective note, he urges her not to vote Yes, because "neither of us is young and stupid any more." Barney isn't getting it. And there is a message here for all of us: a message for Canadians who love their spouse, their team, their city, province, country. Pay attention to detail, watch for the warning signals lest you lose all you hold dear, arriving "shamefully late."

Skilfully, Richler flags his message of arriving "shamefully late" with markers of colour, sound and scent. Twice we are enticed into a warm, safe, gentle setting in Monte Carlo, where we see a "grizzly old geezer wearing a blue smock," hear the "clippity-clop" of his donkey's hooves, smell the scent "of roses on the evening breeze" and the aroma of "freshly baked baguettes." The first time this passage appears, it seems innocent enough. Barney and his friends are seated in a restaurant, watching a beautiful young woman who, after a long wait, is joined by a Frenchman, "well into his fifties," arriving "shamefully late." The friends are contemptuous of the old man, and later, when they see him sitting on his yacht, Barney yells insults at this "French sugar daddy." But when we encounter the passage a second time, our memory triggered by the flash of blue, the clippity-clop, the scent of the roses and the aroma of freshly baked bread, we realize, along with Barney, that he has become like "that odious Frenchman" he taunted so long ago. Solange's daughter, Chantal, puts it more bluntly: "A dirty old man is what you are." With the repetition of colour, sound and (most particularly) scent, Richler underscores what Chantal is saying. Smell, after all, is our most vital aid to memory, a most primal flag; and Richler is warning us to be wary, to keep alert to our most primitive selves... else we, like Barney Panofsky, may arrive too late.

So what happened to Bamey's thirty-one year old marriage-other, that is, than his obvious infidelity with "the bimbo who ruined [his] life," the one thing which Miriam could never forgive? We are told that "fearful of losing her, I made hermy prisoner." "You're devouring me" Miriam tells Barney, early in their relationship; and this state of affairs appears only to have worsened over the years. Insensitivetohiswife'sneedforintellectual stimulation, frightened of things changing, of "coming home to an empty house while she was sitting in a lecture hall," Barney deals ineptly with the situation. He begins "staying out later than usual" or "boorishly" failing "into a drunken sleep on the living-room sofa." And when questioned by daughter Kate about why he is "so sanguine about Mom meeting Blair," by now a full professor of English at Victoria College, he responds with a quick retort. "Don't be foolish. This marriage is a rock." Similarly, when asked by Kate what he will do "if the separatists win," Barney responds firmly to this as well. "They won't. So there's no need for you to worry." So certain, Barney? So certain, fellow Canadians? A thirty-one year old marriage, a one-hundred and thirty-one year old country - what is the difference? The partners need space.

The very act of reading this fine novel causes us to become active participants in the theme, missing or nearly missing the waming signals that are so cleverly dispersed along the way. We, too, are vulnerable to the possibility of not getting it - of arriving "shamefully late." Pay attention! This is a "truly Canadian" story, "roaring" onto the literary scene, "gulping up God knows how many." In a way, I suppose, it is a mystery - a mystery about living; and the clues are scattered throughout the pages, like water droplets sprinkled on a "distant mountain" - tiny elusive details - a challenge waiting for each reader to explore.