It’s been a while since we were introduced to Duddy Kravitz (See review of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Jan. 21 ’09) and Mordecai Richler. St. Urbain’s Horseman is a joyous reunion with both author and–nice surprise–character. As a bonus, I discover that there’s a film (2007 starring Richard Dreyfuss) of St. Urbain’s. I’ll go to Netflix and get back to you.
Nice as it was to shake hands with Duddy again, however, the protagonist of St. Urbain’s is Jake Hersch, who is pretty much the flip side of Kravitz. Where Duddy is relentlessly amoral, Jake is burdened with an overactive social conscience; where Duddy is rapaciously acquisitive, Jake takes whatever wealth drops in his lap without actively pursuing it; where Duddy is an unapologetic philanderer, Jake is devoted to wife and family; where Duddy rarely considers consequences, Jake expects disaster at every turn; and, where Duddy gives not a thought to whether he deserves his gains–ill-gotten or not–Jake seldom feels he deserves anything he has.
All of this might lead one to suspect a Woody Allen nerd, but Jake is no such thing. He’s a successful film and television director, bred in Montreal’s Jewish neighborhood (St. Urbain’s avenue. Not quite a ghetto any more as of the sixties when the book is mostly set.), he’s migrated to London, married a gorgeous schiksa, and built himself a nice position and living. The thing is, he’s not good enough, he thinks, to do more than pedestrian work. He turns down chances to attempt bigger, better films, for various ethical reasons that mask his conviction that he’s a secret fraud.
All this we learn as we explore his past and present through the dynamics of the event that frames the whole novel–a bizarre trial for rape and sodomy and drugs and assault. He’s accused of aiding and abetting these crimes, though the ringleader is one Harry Stein, among the most clever, cynical, and repellent characters you’ll meet in any book, one you certainly don’t want in your life.
How does Jake get involved with the guy? For the answer to that one, we return to the title. Jake has an older cousin named Joey whom he idolizes as a hero, starting when said cousin defended the Jewish community against the misdeeds of the French Canadians using them as a scapegoat for their own problems. Eventually, against all evidence that Joey is a fraud and a con man–not a very good one at that–Jake develops an image of him as a true Golem. A sort of Jewish superman who roams the world looking for brethren in trouble and rides in on a white horse just in time to save the day. Though he has not seen or heard from Joey since boyhood when he was run out of town by persons unknown (maybe people from Jake’s own family who saw him as a troublemaker spoiling their attempts to minimize conflicts in their hostile relationships with the French), in Jake’s mind, Joey is engaged in a lifetime quest to bring the notorious Joseph Mengele to justice. Jake picks up scraps of information here and there over the years, information he always twists to fit his own preconception. In one of his searches for Joey, Jake runs across one of his cousin’s several wives, Ruthie, who is looking to Jake to reimburse her for money Joey has taken. He refuses. Ruthie enlists the help of Stein, who engages in a campaign of clever and ruthless harassment. Jake lets himself get drawn in as he attempts to make peace.
Complex? Yes. But never confusing. People act unpredictably and against their own self interest, Richler makes it funny with his unmatched satiric and painfully sarcastic wit. Not a perfect book. Jake’s wife, Nancy, reminds me of Waylon and Willie’s “Good Hearted Woman,” for example. But a damned good one. Pick it up.