All Hail Mordecai!
I've just finished re-reading Barney's Version by the late, great Mordecai Richler for my mystery reading group at the local Barnes & Noble, and I'm wrecked.
Yeah, it was my choice. And damn it, it IS a mystery, after all. Or at least there's a murder that lies at the great, wild heart of it.
But I forgot how fucking good it is.
What I really want to say is that Barney's Version is by far the best book I've ever read. It's got everything in it. Tears. Laughter. Murder. Family. Children. Bars. Honour. Love. Montreal.
And real style. A real voice. Barney Panofsky has simply one of the most distinctive, memorable narrative voices in fiction; even more vivid than Philip Marlowe's.
And anyone reading this blog knows how I love my Chandler. He was great; one of the funniest, wittiest and most distinctive writers ever, not just in crime fiction but in literature. But Chandler never made me cry.
But Barney Panofsky did.
It's a clever premise: Barney, an aging, rich Canadian TV producer (mostly, he admits, of schlock), looks back on his life. His childhood growing up in Montreal, the son of a rough-and-tumble cop, his wild years in Paris poking around the edges of a circle of ex-pat writers and artists, his three marriages and, of course, the suspicion of that he murdered his best friend that has hung over him for over thirty years. Along the way, Barney rambles and digresses (and his son contradicts him in a series of nitpicking footnotes) and Richler gets to poke fun at his usual favourite targets with his usual take-no-prisoners wit. Suffice it to say that nationalists of all stripes, racists and the over-earnest and the pretentious do not come off well. In fact, if the reader doesn't squirm at least once in self-recognition, they're probably not paying attention. Although perhaps the biggest target of Barney's scorn is himself.
Along the way a lot of cigars are smoked and booze is swallowed. Opinions are expressed and stories are told. Hearts are broken, petty scores settled and inflated egos punctured. It's hard not to be drawn into Barney's world -- he's alternately nasty, noble, loyal, self-serving, shallow, faithful and a cad, but somehow, despite himself, always honest. And, as his faculties slowly desert him, it's difficult not to feel something for the poor son of a bitch. Or laugh at the blackly humourous bitch slap of an ending.
They've recently made a movie of Barney's Version, starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. It was released in Canada and briefly, oh so briefly, in the States. I haven't seen it yet (I think it only played for a week in LA and New York) but no matter how good it might be, it could never be as effective as the novel, or touch what I'm feeling right now.
Shit. I need to get home to Montreal this year. Hug my kids. Walk Ste. Catherine. Have a medium fat at Schwarz's...