By Mordecai Richler
Knopf; 384 pages; $25
A gift of gab and a willingness to stretch the truth to fit the circumstances are characteristics shared by many of Mordecai Richler's most memorable protagonists. The author of "Solomon Gursky Was Here," "Joshua Then and Now" and "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," Richler specializes in depicting larger-than-life Montreal Jews who fashion new identities for themselves out of whatever materials are handy.
Barney Panofsky, the hero of Richler's latest novel, "Barney's Version," proves a more unreliable narrator than most. Not only does he admittedly shape his memoirs so that he appears in the best light possible, but he also suffers from troubling lapses of memory. Although he can render a scene from his youth in Paris, the sixty-seven-year-old head of Canadian television's Totally Useless Productions can't quite dredge up the names of more than five of the Seven Dwarfs or identify the common kitchen implement used to strain spaghetti.
Barney's life story mainly revolves around his three very different wives. Claire, his first and his cohort in his Parisian adventure, is a neurotic artist who ends up a matyred feminist icon. The next, identified only as "The Second Mrs. Panofsky," is a spoiled rich girl who can't hold Barney's attention even through the wedding reception. Miriam, Barney's one true love and the mother of his three children, makes him truly happy for the first time, but even she can't cure his self-destructive streak.
The central mystery of Barney's later life concerns the whereabouts of his best friend, junkie and literary cult figure Bernard Moskovitch, best known as Boogie. Barney clearly recalls catching Boogie in bed with the Second Mrs. Panosky at their lakeside cabin, and he remembers firing a pistol over Boogie's head as he dove into the water. But could he have killed him in cold-blood, as many people, the police especially, suspect?
In chronicling his murder trial, Barney maintains his innocence, but the deterioration of his memory brings everything into question. He writes."Were I a real writer, I would have shuffled the deck of my memoirs so that this would be a real nail-biter. Worthy of Eric you-know, he wrote 'The Something of Dimitrios." Eric like I was going for a walk. Eric Stroller? No. Eric like that publication Sam Johnson used to write for. 'Idler." Eric Idler? No Never mind. Forget it."
Like most of Richler's books, "Barney's Version" is a comic novel, though one leavened with a deep vein of melancholy. Barney's a funny guy, quick with a quip about Quebec separtists or humorless political correctness. But there's a note of desperate self-pity in Barney's version of his life that makes the reader wonder, at least in the early chapters, whether the author can sustain one's sympathy for him over an entire novel.
By the end, however, only the readers with the hardest hearts will fail to be moved by Barney's plight. As he says himself, "Years ago, luxuriating in my undeserved happiness with Miriam and the kids, I feared for the anger of the gods. I was convinced something dreadful lay in wait for me. An avenging monster who would rise out of the bathroom drain like an invention of Stephen King's. Now I know. The monster was me. I was the destroyer of my loving refuge...'"
Like many unreliable narratives, Barney winds up unwittingly revealing more about himself than he initially intends. As someone who has always sought the company of artists yet taken a perverse pride in the schlock he delivers to his television viewers, Barney pours all of his frustration, bile and longing for forgiveness into a remarkable memoir, the ironies of which will not even become fully apparent until after the manuscript is annotated by his son Michael.
Michael notes that Barney's two cherished beliefs were "Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else." The novel's denouement, which solves the mystery of Boogie's disappearance, may make a case for the former, but despite his regrets and dwindling memory, Barney Panofsky proves that he understands himself and his loved ones better than he imagines. "Barney's Version" is vintage Richler: funny, tough and touching.
(c) 1997 by Michael Berry