Bile with Style

Bile with Style

Jefferson Chase on a sharp-penned Canadian who both writes and drinks whisky – Mordecai Richler

Whisky & Culture | 24 Mar 2003 | Issue 29 | By Jefferson Chase

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In 1899 a man named Robert Barr wrote an essay arguing that Canadians couldn’t write literature because they drank too much whisky. Ninety-nine years later, Jewish-Canadian author Mordecai Richler published a book that refutes Barr’s assertion on both counts.Barney’s Version is the fictional memoir of a thrice-married septuagenarian and producer of TV schlock, who was once accused of murdering his best friend. Fortified with single malts and Montechristos, Barney Panofsky has decided to tell his side of his story and prove he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

It’s a difficult undertaking – and not just because the ageing Montrealer’s memory is failing. Dancing around with a tumbler of Highland malt, for instance, Barney describes his estranged third wife’s partner:There are some people out there who take Blair to be a fine fellow. A scholar of distinction. Even my sons defend him. We appreciate how you feel, they say, but he is an intelligent and caring man, devoted to Miriam. Bullshit. A drudge on tenure, Blair came to Canada from Boston in the Sixties, a draft dodger, like Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton, and consequently a hero for his students. As for me, I'm dumbfounded that anybody would prefer Toronto to Saigon.“Bile with style” is how one reviewer described this book, and I’ll second that. Or if one prefers alliteration to rhyme, a ‘Cardhu curmudgeon’.But Barney also has his sentimental side. Once a year, he visits his father’s grave, emptying a bottle of Crown Royal over it and, in a twist on Jewish custom, leaving behind not a pebble, but a smoked meat sandwich. The irascible Izzy Panofsky, a foul-mouthed beat cop, puts in a number of appearances in Barney’s memoirs, including at his son’s second wedding:“Come here,” I said, and I gave Izzy a hug. He wiggled his eyebrows, took my hand and pressed it against the service revolver he wore on his hip. The revolver that would eventually be my ruin. Almost. “I don’t go anywheres naked any more,” he said. “Somebody gives you trouble, you tell me, and I’ll fucken air-condition him.”Firearms can’t solve Barney’s troubles in this scene: how to keep up with a crucial game in hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs and how to approach the woman (not his wife) with whom he has just fallen in love. Barney’s second union is anything but blessed, and before long he is contemplating adultery to get around Catholic Montreal’s strict divorce laws. Fortunately, an old buddy from Barney’s misspent youth in Paris steps in:Barney Panofsky, you were born with a horseshoe up your ass … I wasn’t going to need a hooker or a private detective any more. Nosireebob. Composing myself, looking appropriately stern I hoped, I started inside to confront Boogie. He was already downstairs … lifting a bottle of eighteen-year-old Macallan, and two glasses out of the bar. “It’s cooler down here, isn’t it?”“You screwed my wife, you son of a bitch.” “I think we should have a drink before we get into this.”Unfortunately for Barney, “getting into this” means being brought up for homicide.This is a book everyone reading these lines should buy. Mordecai Richler has been regarded as a lighter weight, Canadian equivalent of Philip Roth. With Barney’s Version, he’s staked out original territory. Not only is Barney Panofsky a literary rarity, a hard-drinking Jewish jokester; the
novel ends with a depiction of ageing more uncompromisingly horrific and moving than anything Roth has written to date. At the end of laughter lies only silence. The message: enjoy it while you can. Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler is available from Vintage in paperback
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