Well, it turns out I’ve missed out too long on another rightfully-renowned author. I’d never heard of the late (2001) Mordecai Richler or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz until my Canadian son-in-law gifted me with some north-or-the-border classics the Christmas. I wrote of the first reading on the list recently (October 10) and was not so favorably impressed with Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. But, ah, Richler is another, as they say, story. You can bet I’ll be back for more.
Kravitz was published the year I graduated from high school. It put Richler on the map, and he certainly belongs there. The title anti-hero is the son of a single-parent father, a taxi driver, struggling to survive in the Jewish Ghetto of Monreal. We meet him while he’s a non-student at Fletcher’s Field Jewish High School, tormenting his teachers and his family alike. We then trace his development through a series of struggles and dreams involving a variety of get-rich schemes. It turns out that Duddy is a gifted businessman, adept at conceiving moneymaking ideas and gathering the resources to fulfill them. Once launched on such notions, he’s obsessively hardworking and relentless. The apprenticeship part of the title derives from the mentors he gathers on his road toward success. They range from a kindly grandfather to an outright criminal entrepreneur. Whom Duddy chooses to emulate and whom to disregard constitute the sum of his education and the fruits of his ambition.
Richler provides ample humor throughout the novel, with ample reminders that comedy is almost always rooted in pain, for he provides pain aplenty along with the laughs. Take this sequence which describes part of Duddy’s school life when, as the leader of a delinquent gang called the Warriors, he agrees to initiate a social outcast who’s been hungry for acceptance into the group.
One day Duddy said it would be okay if only Milty agreed to drink the secret initiation potion first. The potion, made up of water, red ink, baking soda, pepper, ketchup, a glob of chicken fat, and, at the last minute, a squirt of Aqua Velva went down with surprising ease. Afterwards, however, Duddy feigned hysteria.
“Jeez. This is terrible. I made a terrible mistake.”
“What is it?”
“The wrong recipe. Jeez.”
“But I drank it. You said if I drank it I could become a Warrior. You swore to God, Duddy.”
“It’s terrible,” Duddy said, “but this means your beezer is a cinch to fall off and you’ll never grow a bush. And Milty, if a guy doesn’t grow a bush . . .”
Milty ran off crying and that night he was violently ill.
“What is it, pussy-lamb?”
“I’m never going to grow a bush, Mummy.”
“Duddy Kravitz says . . .”
How and/or whether Duddy sheds his creative cruelty I’ll leave to your reading. Be assured, though, that you’ll love finding out and that Richler makes every page worth turning and when you’ve turned the last, leaves you regretting there are no more.