By Mordecai Richler
Spending the past several years on the Plateau Montreal has definitely been a privilege, but living in such close proximity to St Urbain St and having never read any Mordecai Richler the whole time is almost a crime. So if I’m going to start things off right, I figure the best intro would be none other than Duddy Kravitz. Indeed, the titular character’s old stomping grounds are now my own, the only major difference being what was once a working-class Jewish neighbourhood is now a gentrified and coveted area to reside in. Reading about Duddy’s boyhood on the Plateau evokes a mixed sense of loss for a bygone era and awe at how many things manage to remain unchanged since, say, WWII.
To the middle-class stranger, it’s true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here’s a prized plot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there. But, as the boys knew, each street between St Dominique and Park Avenue represented subtle differences in income. No two cold-water flats were alike… No two stores were the same, either. Best Fruit gypped on the scales, but Smiley’s didn’t give credit.
The beginning of the novel is splendid, with teenaged Duddy Kravitz and his gang of Warriors pretty much ruling over Fletcher Fields High School, tormenting their pathetic teacher, Mr MacPherson, and getting into tussles with the CPS, a kind of civil defense organization during the war. Kravitz is a born troublemaker, but this doesn’t mean he’s lacking in ambition and drive. His biggest dream of all is to someday own his own land. As his Grandpa Simcha would constantly drive it home to Duddy, “A man without land is nobody”.
At night, lying exhausted on his cot, Duddy realized how little money he had in big business terms and he dreamed about his future. He knew what he wanted, and that was to own his own land and to be rich, a somebody, but he was not sure of the smartest way to go about it. He was confident. But there had been other comers before him. South America, for instance, could no longer be discovered. It had been found. Toni Home Permanent had been invented. Another guy had already thought up Kleenex. But there was something out there, like let’s say the atom bomb formula before it had been discovered, and Duddy dreamed that he would find it and make his fortune.
The last sentence is telling, implying that Duddy is willing to resort to rather unscrupulous methods if it means he can get that much closer to achieving his dream. That turns out to be a bit of an understatement. The rest of the novel is pretty much about Duddy’s various ill-conceived yet audacious enterprises, the business men he comes across who are varying shades of shady and legit, the friends and lovers he meets and eventually screws over. The stuff about Duddy’s half-baked schemes, like his stint as a socalled movie producer who hires a washed-up alcoholic filmmaker to shoot bar mitzvahs and weddings in and around Westmount, can be down-right hilarious.
Before all the scheming and manipulating, Duddy starts off humbly and honestly working as a waiter at a summer resort in Ste Agathe. This section is also fun to read since I stayed at a friend’s summer cottage out there, and could almost visualize how it must’ve been like back in the day:
Some sixty miles from Montreal, set high in the Laurentian hills on the shore of a splendid blue lake, Ste Agathe des Monts had been made the middle-class Jewish community’s own resort town many years ago. Here, as they prospered, the Jews came from Outremont to build summer cottages and hotels and children’s camps. … There were still some pockets of Gentile resistance, it’s true … For even as they played croquet and sipped their gin and tonics behind protecting pines they could not miss the loud, swarthy parade outside. The short husbands with their outrageously patterned sports shirts arm in arm with purring wives too obviously full for slacks… The lake was out of the question. Sailboats and canoes had no chance against speedboats, spilling over with relatives and leaving behind a wash of empty Pepsi bottles.
What really makes this coming-of-age story rather unorthodox and memorable, if not always likable, is the dark and ugly side of Duddy Kravitz. This would imply that there could also be a good and appealing side, which does on occasion surface when it involves Duddy’s immediate family. Other than that, Duddy is pretty much pure ambition and mostly driven by his obsession to come out on top. TAoDK is a brutally honest and unsympathetic portrayal of a protagonist that sinks to despicable lows, and ends up getting what he wants in the end... at a cost. There is no disguising that Duddy Kravitz represents the epitome of the Jewish nightmare. In this sense, Richler’s novel kind of plays out as a morality tale. The ending is ambiguous in that it lacks any kind of satisfying reconciliation -- Duddy never learns his lesson and ends up alienating everyone around him. What’s certain is that Duddy will always be driven to make money and will never change his ways.
I want some land, Uncle Benjy. I’m going to own my own place one day. King of the castle, that’s me. And there won’t be any superior drecks there to laugh at me or run me off. That’s just about the size of it.
The 1974 film version by Ted Kotcheff, which stars the young Richard Dreyfuss as the titular character, is considered a Canadian landmark. I saw it long ago in film school, and will likely revisit the film again now that I finally read Richler’s book many years later!