I've been reading through Mordecai Richler's fiction in a very bizarre order. I read The Incomparable Atuk first and then Barney's Version. Duddy Kravitz makes a short cameo in Barney's Version, but he seems a much tamer version of his younger self, though still a bit of a hustler. Both Duddy and Barney seem determined to stick out and be fairly difficult (if not to say obnoxious) Jews who refuse to be assimilated into Montreal society (neither the Anglophone nor the Francophone culture). Anyway, I decided I really ought to just buckle down and read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I'll follow up very shortly with The Street. I haven't decided when to tackle St. Urbain's Horseman, which is centred on one of Duddy's schoolmates, Hersh (though I wouldn't be surprised if Duddy doesn't at least make an appearance, though maybe just in flashback form), but I will get around to it one of these days. At any rate, it is peculiar that I have held off from reading his best known work until now.
I think there is no question I would have liked the novel a bit more had I read it while I was younger, though it's possible that because I was a school teacher so early in my career, there wouldn't have been a time after I left university that I would have really been receptive to Duddy Kravitz, who terrorizes his teachers, particularly Mr. MacPherson. I myself was harassed by a number of students, all of whom loved exploiting weaknesses and weren't interested in teachers "taking an interest" in them and certainly had no interest in anything being offered up at school. Given this background, I didn't even enjoy the movie Ferris Bueller particularly much, and I think those negative feelings would have been even stronger had I encountered Duddy Kravitz and his ilk back then. Now I am simply too old to have much interest in juvenile delinquent antics. (I have to admit I didn't care much for Narayan's Swami and Friends either.)
I am actually more intrigued by some of the secondary characters in the novel, such as the alcoholic Mr. MacPherson and moreso Duddy's father, Max. While Max reveres his smart son, Lennie, who is studying to become a doctor, he is even more drawn to the antics of the Boy Wonder, Jerry Dingleman, who worked his way up from nothing to become a rich hoodlum. There seem to be two role models that urban Jews could look up to, either the bookish types who go on to become doctors and lawyers or the slick operators, who live the fast life. Duddy would surely have been tempted by the flashy, seemingly easy life on his own account, but the fact that his father also validated it pushed him further down this path.
I did find the novel more interesting after Duddy graduates (towards the bottom of his class) and starts scheming almost immediately. As a side note, the goings on at the Jewish resort, where he worked right after school, reminded me just a bit of Will Eisner's A Contract with God. Even Dingleman is somewhat impressed and perhaps a bit concerned at how frantic Duddy is to make money (actually in order to buy up real estate!).
What is interesting is that Duddy often but doesn't always come out on top in his interactions with other schemers. Montreal is a big place, with lots of con men around in the circles that he begins to frequent. Duddy hasn't been around the block as many times as they have, but he has pluck and determination and a willingness to get right back up after he has been knocked down. This does make him more appealing than the student who fairly pointlessly undermined his teachers, and perhaps I am rooting for him a bit (certainly far more than I would have thought at the start of the book). All that said, I still wouldn't want to have to deal with Duddy in real life, just as I would have studiously avoided Barney. I'm still undecided if I will watch the film that made a star of Richard Dreyfuss (or the film version of Barney's Version for that matter), but maybe I'll get around to it one of these days. A lot depends on how much of the humour of the book is captured. One of the funniest passages is when Duddy finally gets to screen the film of the bar mitzva that he had filmed (as an early money-making venture). It sounds like an absolute riot but one that satisfied the boy's father (shades of The Music Man perhaps?), and I'm just wondering if that made its way into the movie. I guess there's only one way to find out...