Joshua Then and Now1 is Mordecai Richler’s eighth novel, but it so closely resembles his seventh, St. Urbain’s Horseman, which came out in 1971, that it’s often hard to remember who said and did what in which book. In structure the two novels are identical, cutting back and forth in time with cinematic rapidity between the main character’s childhood and adolescence in the St. Urbain Street Jewish ghetto of Montreal, his adventurous young manhood in Europe, and the way he lives now, in hard-earned fame and affluence. Both books are dominated by the same brash and funny voice, that of a tough, witty, rueful, uneasily intellectual Jewish wiseguy who regards his professional success, his happy marriage, his handsome children with unbelieving awe. A lifelong guilt-collector, he is tormented by neurotic dread that the sweet comfort of his middle years will at any moment and for no good reason be shattered by a bolt from the evil eye.
In St. Urbain’s Horseman he was a television and movie director named Jacob Hersh. In the current book he is a sometime historian (of the International Brigade in Spain), a sportswriter and “TV personality” (that demeaning euphemism) named Joshua Shapiro, But the two characters are patently one and the same edgy, sardonic Jew from a working-class family, who, like Mordecai Richler, departed the colonial wasteland at a tender age, and spent many expatriate years in London. Joshua Shapiro, also like Richler, came back to Montreal some time ago, with mixed feelings of regret and relief, and settled in the city’s Westmount section, once the restricted dominion of Wasps and now as densely inhabited by nouveau-riche Jews as Scarsdale. Both Jake Hersh and Joshua Shapiro are married to beautiful Gentile women, and they are both torn by fierce ambivalence toward Jews and toward themselves as Jews.
In St. Urbain’s Horseman, however, Jake Hersh’s inability to come to terms with his Jewishness is conveyed as a credibly honest if nettle-some strain in his tempestuous personality, and it takes its toll in a chain of misjudgment and recklessness that lands him in the Old Bailey on a sex charge. Because Richler kept a skeptical distance between himself and his fictional creature, he endowed Jake’s irritable equivocation about Jews with a wry authenticity that was neither dismissive nor self-serving. But the sticky business of Jewish self-denial seems to have gotten out of hand in Joshua Then and Now, perhaps because Richler knows too well that there is nothing new to be done with the old love-hate routines, with the Jewish lust for shiksas and the Jewish intellectual’s disdain for the hustling Duddy Kravitzes of his childhood world. And so he has tried to invigorate the exhausted manners and morals of Jewish naturalism with some of the manic grotesquerie of literary wild men like Stanley Elkin. But the violent outrageousness of black humor does not come naturally to Richler, whose comic ingenuity has always flourished within the plausibilities of conventional realism.
In Joshua Then and Now, the raffish parents are forced to carry the burden of Richler’s flirtation with the art of the absurd, and though they are indeed an affront to conventional notions of Jewish family respectability, they seem more outlandish than absurd. In Joshua’s boyhood, his father Reuben, a former lightweight champion of Canada, bootlegger, and muscle man for the mob, was always vanishing mysteriously—into jail, as his son would learn much later, or hiding out with gangster pals. His mother, Esther, was the shame and disgrace of the neighborhood, but “the more she was socially scorned, the greater was her defiance, the back-yard laundry line serving as her banner of rebellion. While immense cotton bloomers and outsized bras flapped worthily in the wind on other clotheslines, sassy little black bras and lacy black panties . . . danced wickedly on theirs. Right out there in the back lane, where husbands setting out the garbage could look up and swallow hard.” What Esther yearns to become is a queen of burlesque, and she practices her bumps-and-grinds on a captive audience of one—young Joshua, whistling and stamping his feet on cue as Mama wriggles to the saucy rhythms of “Snake Hips.” But Richler cannot leave well enough alone, and flogs the anti-Jewish-mother joke to death. Not only does Esther entertain the boys at Joshua’s bar mitzvah with a striptease, but she is still going strong in her sixties, running a massage parlor in Winnipeg, acting in skin-flicks, and finally graduating, a reformed sex-object, to women’s lib.
None of this is very funny—it’s too labored and lacks Richler’s old tummler exuberance—and neither is Reuben’s dubious concern about his son’s religious ignorance (“We’re Hebes you and me, and don’t you forget it”), which he undertakes to remedy in beery Bible classes in the back yard. By the time Reuben has gone ten rounds with the Book of Job, he has pummeled its moral into an earthy pulp: “If you continue to believe in God, even when you’re up shit’s creek, it can pay off double at the window.”
Though Joshua understandably acquires little in the way of Jewish wisdom from Reuben’s exegeses, Richler would have us believe that our hero somehow grew up with as intractable a load of Jewish-intellectual guilt and anguish as his properly educated friends. Even his marriage to the high-born, honey-haired, long-legged Pauline, daughter of a Senator who had been in Mackenzie King’s wartime cabinet, does nothing to mitigate Joshua’s sour obsession with what Richler grandly calls “the weight of his Jewish heritage.” It’s hard to grasp just what that heritage amounts to for this tough-cookie son of a bootlegger and a stripper, beyond a resentful pride in his “Jewish” ineptitude at “goysy” pastimes like tennis: my heritage can beat your heritage. This is vintage Richler, of course, but along with the noisy arrogance there is an unexpected reliance on sentimentality in Joshua Then and Now.
The streak of softheadedness is most freely indulged in the Spanish episodes of Joshua Then and Now, where Richler’s serious intentions are presumably played out. For his generation, Joshua reminds us, the Spanish Civil War made that country “a territory of the heart. A country of the imagination. . . . Not so much a received political idea as a moral inheritance.” (Never mind that we are not told just how the street-tough Joshua found his way to such political ardor.) As a feisty young man knocking around Europe in the early 50’s, Joshua had eventually settled on the island of Ibiza, where memories of the Civil War were still very much alive, the wine cheap, the peasants brave and true and straight out of Hemingway. But after Joshua tangled with a demented German whom his fevered imagination had inflated into a Nazi devil (and in the process jeopardized a new hotel owned by aging Jewish refugees), he was forced to leave the enchanted isle, and for the next quarter of a century nurses smoldering dreams of penance and revenge. Whenever the action flips back to Spain, a finger pokes us to notice how gravely Richler has reflected on the persecution of the Jews throughout the centuries. But there is a kind of double standard at work here, as Richler exploits feelings he does not hesitate to ridicule maliciously elsewhere.
The trouble is that Richler can’t take the Jews, but can’t seem to leave them alone either, and this has been clear in his work all along. By now, though, the chronic shuffling from love to hate has gone on for too long, and a lot of the jokes are turning rancid. True, the manic comedy still works sometimes, as in the descriptions of the annual meeting of the William Mackenzie King Memorial Society, when Joshua’s gang of Jewish jesters gathers to pay homage to the dotty Prime Minister of Canada who believed that Hitler “will rank some day with Joan of Arc among the deliverers of his people.” Yet even this fun-and-games sounds after a while like a high-school reunion: Remember how Izzy Singer tripped his burglar alarm with a bowl of chopped liver?
On the one hand, Richler wants to earn points for his immunity to Gentile condescension—when his prim father-in-law inquires about the Shapiro family traditions, Joshua shoots from the lip: “We do not take shit from anybody.” On the other, we are expected to applaud his savage skewering of Jewish arrivistes like the psychiatrist Jonathan Cole (né Yussel Kugelman), author of Your Kind, My Kind, Mankind. Sure it’s funny, but so many Jewish novelists and comedians have rung so many changes over the years on the same kind of joke that it’s not unreasonable to want something less hackneyed, less puffy with self-gratulation. Richler has not bothered to think hard and long enough about the divided soul of Jews like Joshua (and himself) or taken the trouble to understand just what manner of men, beyond the antic comedy, he means them to be. And so Joshua never becomes a fully realized human being, but remains a slapdash collage of Richler’s private phobias, wisecracks, crotchets, vulgarities, and sentimental memories. With all his infectious vitality, his deft deflation of stuffed shirts and sanctimonious liberals, Richler never makes us feel, in Joshua Then and Now, the living force of an uncomplacent mind. The strident voice overwhelms everything else.
E. L. Doctorow, who was born in the same year as Richler—1931—did not publish his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, until 1960. Fifteen years later, Doctorow’s fourth book, Ragtime, brought him the kind of success that serious novelists rarely enjoy. Not only was Ragtime a huge seller, but it was virtually canonized by the critics, and the few dissenting voices—Hilton Kramer’s in these pages, Greil Marcus’s in the Village Voice—were all but drowned out by the hallelujah chorus proclaiming Ragtime a masterpiece that provided a stunningly fresh assent to the radical disaffection with America which engulfed the society during the Vietnam war. By wrapping his ideological fable for the 70’s in a deceptively pretty turn-of-the-century package, Doctorow pandered to every modish piety of his own time—America the Decadent, the sexist repression of women, the racist oppression of blacks, and the sinister power of American imperialism—while seeming to be engaged in nothing more than a charming exercise in nostalgia for the vanished simplicities of yesteryear.
But it took a while for the polemical design of the book to yield itself with unmistakable clarity. What was remarkable about the book’s initial reception, as Hilton Kramer observed, was the reviewers’ seeming blindness to the novel’s political objective, which he attributed to the fact “that our culture is now so completely permeated with the myth of American malevolence that an ambitious political romance like Ragtime, which distorts the actual materials of history with a fierce ideological arrogance, is no longer in any danger of being recognized as having a blunt political point.”
If the reviewers had looked back at The Book of Daniel, the novel Doctorow published four years before Ragtime, they would have realized that no matter what disingenuous games he played in Ragtime with historical figures manipulated as literary inventions, or with the domestic appurtenances of middle-class New Rochelle at the beginning of the century, this writer regards himself above all as a political novelist. The Book of Daniel was an account of the Rosenberg case as told by their grown son, who is certain of their innocence, and unequivocally committed to a conspiratorial view of his parents’ trial and execution and of the “totalitarian society” that singled them out for martyrdom. In his didactic zeal to spell out these convictions, Doctorow expanded the Rosenberg drama with ironic lectures on such things as “The True History of the Cold War” and the hidden function of Disneyland as a training ground for the control of potentially dangerous crowds. Though the political argument of The Book of Daniel would hardly have been offensive to liberal readers of 1971, the style was more devious and self-consciously literary than the simple declarative rhythms of Ragtime, and failed to exert the direct appeal of the sugar-coated ideological tale that, four years later, opened the floodgates for E. L. Doctorow.
But what does a novelist do for an encore when such phenomenal success is behind him? It is a recurrent problem in American literary culture. Some novelists are struck dumb by extravagant celebration, but others, like Norman Mailer and William Styron, accept that the onus is now on them to come up with something new and different. So with Doctorow, who has now written a novel, Loon Lake,2 that is remarkably unlike anything he has published before. Yet not even by the most generous standards can it be called a remarkable novel. It is difficult at first to get any clear sense of what he is trying to do, and the mannered incoherence and stylistic confusion are in sharp contrast to the sleek, bright assurance of Ragtime. Though Loon Lake takes place in the 1930’s, during the American Depression, and deals in several chapters with the labor strife of the period, the political themes one might expect are almost always sounded with weary indirectness, and only at the very end—on the very last page, in fact—can we fully grasp Doctorow’s polemical intentions.
The narrative proper covers several picaresque years in the life of a young roughneck from Paterson, the son of wretchedly poor mill hands, who runs away from home, joins a gang of hobos, becomes a carnival roustabout, and stumbles accidentally onto Loon Lake, the vast Adirondack estate of the steel tycoon F. W. Bennett. One of the old industrialist’s toys is a gangster’s moll who sneaks out of Loon Lake with Joe, and the two settle down for a while in a steel town owned by one of Bennett’s many companies. She leaves him, and Joe goes back to Loon Lake, is taken in by the old man, and that is literally the end of the story, except for a fraudulent last page whose extraordinary revelations have no plausible connection with the rest of the book. Doctorow makes only perfunctory stabs at endowing any of the characters with a semblance of life. If Joe is deliberately conceived as a cipher, like the cardboard figures of Ragtime, we are given no hint, until the end, of the idea, political or otherwise, he is meant to embody.
It is not the thin story, however, that betrays the desperation behind this baffling performance, but the ostentatious structure Doctorow has devised to fatten his undernourished tale. The adventures of young Joe are repeatedly interrupted by mysterious computer printouts supplying biographical data on the various characters or offering elaborate rationales for the sins of capitalism. Eventually we realize what lies behind this printout device: the ubiquitous computer that knows all and tells all is Doctorow’s symbol for the dehumanized technology of a military-industrial world, the tyrannical machine that overwhelms its operators and reduces the entire culture to unfeeling statistics; the computer becomes the mechanical master of a mechanical world devoid of justice or human emotion.
In addition to the all-knowing computer, Doctorow also strews the narrative with elaborate verbal tricks, puns, pseudo-poetic doodling, and signals leading nowhere. For instance, in the computer-printout biography that concludes Loon Lake, we are told for the first time that the full name of the hero is Joseph Korzeniowski. This jolts us awake, since Korzeniowski was the real name of Joseph Conrad, but since there is not the remotest connection between Doctorow’s novel and Conrad, the name must be taken as a whimsical in-joke signifying nothing. The book is full of incomprehensible pranks like this, dropped into the story at random to lend it an air of experimental, “modernist” daring. There are also run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness monologues, typographical games, and every so often ruminations in the author’s own voice about strikes, the Depression, the Ludlow mine disaster of 1914, and the irredeemable rottenness of American civilization.
If a good deal of this seems familiar, it is no accident. The unacknowledged ghost of John Dos Passos—the brilliantly innovative Dos Passos of U.S.A.—haunts just about every page of Loon Lake. Doctorow’s computer biographies are a weak imitation of the portraits—of business magnates, political leaders, labor heroes, intellectuals, and scientists—that Dos Passos juxtaposed against the unheard and unremembered lives of the poor in Depression America. But while the Dos Passos biographies convey a living sense of history through the men who shaped and changed the American scene, Doctorow’s printouts provide only unassimilated facts that have no bearing on a unique historical moment. Doctorow’s Joe, the poor but ambitious mongrel who grabs whatever life throws in his path, has more than a few counterparts in U.S.A. And Doctorow’s failed poet, Warren Pen-field, is in many respects reminiscent of Dos Passos’s Richard Savage, the spoiled idealist and poet corrupted by the main chance. The impressionistic commentaries of the “Camera Eye” in U.S.A.—the voice of Dos Passos—are also paralleled in Doctorow’s ironic and bitter soliloquies, written in the monotone of computer language, indicting “the industrial Western democracies” for “the tendency of legislation to serve the interests of the ruling business oligarchy the poisoning of the air water . . . the obscene development of hideous weaponry the increased costs of simple survival the waste of human resources. . . .”
In such passages the computer is turned into an ideological instrument tapping out its message about the evils of present-day American society, but they sound like nothing so much as a throwback to the agitprop radicalism of the 1930’s. Doctorow is determined to resist any counterrevolutionary suggestion that anything has changed for the better over the course of the last half-century. But since he fails to enrich his judgment with anything like the immediacy Dos Passos achieved with his technical experiments, Loon Lake conveys little more than the author’s hortatory ineptitude.
For it is only on the last page of the novel that Doctorow finally reveals the key, and by then it seems more preposterous than illuminating. The ubiquitous computer is hauled in for one last sinister printout, and as it taps out the bare facts of Joe’s life, we learn that he was adopted by his capitalist benefactor, went to an Ivy League college, and served in the OSS during the war. As the computer clacks along, disgorging its data, we finally come to the kicker: “Appointed organization staff Central Intelligence Agency 1947. . . . Continuous service Central Intelligence Agency to resignation 1974. Retiring rank Deputy Assistant Director.” And—aha!—there we have it, the worm in the apple, the hidden theme of Loon Lake: the corruption of the American working class by the evil forces of wealth and power.
Clearly Doctorow has nothing new to add to his old radical litany. Trapped in the simpleminded futility of his political dogmas, he is doomed to sing the same old songs over and over again.
1 Knopf, 435 pp., $11.95.
2 Random House, 272 pp., $11.95.