It’s a pleasure to be back in the company of Mordecai Richler. This is my third session with him, the first without a mention of Duddy Kravitz, the third with home base in Montreal. However, twentieth century Eastern Canada is only a pivot point for Solomon Gursky. It opens in seventeenth century Maine, wanders around to Newgate prison, puts us among a tribe of Jewish Eskimos (courtesy of a disastrous search for the Northwest Passage), generally sprawling all over time and space.
When it’s good, you wonder why he hasn’t won a Booker or even a Nobel. However, he needed a Maxwell Perkins to barber things for him, and the narrative sags and meanders too often to consider the work a complete success.
The subject of the book is Moses Berger, the erstwhile dipsomaniac writer intent on writing a biography Gursky, who was the lynchpin of a fraternal liquor baron triumvirate. Berger’s research takes him back and back and back, and us with him, through a vastly entertaining and insightful cast of characters and plots. Depth and scope. It takes quite a writer to pull off both of those. Richler is quite a writer.
One of my favorite aspects of Richler is his humor, and Gursky is often hilarious. There’s been too big a gap between my returning the book to the library and this writing to do a proper job of presenting the funny side of things. I do remember one scene where the Gursky brothers are trying to figure out a way to avoid prison for their various prohibition-era misdeeds, and one of them suggests that prison might not be so bad. Solomon says something like, “sure, sewing mailbags and stamping out license plates, why should those other guys have all the fun?” A rather lame example, but the novel full of that stuff and much better. Entertaining, amusing, a, and believe me it’s better if you’re there.
All in all, Richler the matter of why Richler isn’t better recognized has to come from his Canadianism. Can’t think of another reason. It certainly isn’t the quality of his writing.