Saturday, November 18, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 11th review - The Street

Mordecai Richler's The Street is a slim volume recounting Richler's adolescent years, growing up on St. Urbain in Montreal at the tail end of the Depression and during WWII.  It is an unusual book, in the sense that it mixes memoir and fiction, so for example he talks about the other Jewish kids he grew up with and he includes Duddy Kravitz, a fictional character.  Duddy Kravitz turns up in 3 or 4 of the 10 chapters of The Street, but he isn't nearly as overwhelming a presence as he is in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.  Here he is a bit more worldly than the young Mordecai (having a better understanding of sex and how babies are made) and toward the end of the book, Duddy starts the first of his many money-making schemes, installing peanut vending machines at key corners of the neighbourhood, but he is still basically just another average kid.  It is interesting how Richler describes himself and his friends as juvenile delinquents (not so different from the childhood memories of John Fante but with the critical difference that the Jewish kids are seen mouthing off to weak-willed adults).  Maybe it is a testament to natural ability that many of Richler's friends made something of their lives, even after skipping school regularly and rejecting the path to medicine or the law that their parents wanted.  (Only Hersh who is the main character of St. Urbain's Horseman -- and is probably the Hershey mentioned in The Street -- seems particularly bookish.)

Richler paints a fairly discouraging picture of life in this neighbourhood, where the kids hang out on street corners and harass and cat-call girls and young women.  The store owners all seem to be in a running battle with each other.  There is a lot of the kvetching that is almost obligatory in Jewish fiction.  Virtually every bit of national and international news is parsed to see if it is good for the Jews or not.  (There are a few flashes of this kind of logic in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, which is set in Brooklyn right after Krystallnacht (1938), which was terrible for the Jews directly and indirectly in the sense that it might inspire anti-Semitic acts in North America.)  What makes this fairly different from Hugh MacLennan is that MacLennan only focuses on the French Canadians in conflict with Anglophones in Montreal, whereas Richler sees Jews and the French (called "pea-soups" by the boys) all under the thumb of the rich Anglophones.  At the same time, the French Canadians are able to set up resorts for themselves and claim territory as reserved for "Gentiles only," which was not an option for the Jews of Montreal.  Richler doesn't necessarily want to make apologies for the dirty tricks that his friends get up to, but he is exploring what happens to kids who feel shut out of the system by two or more layers of discrimination.  (Fighting against or at least reacting to discrimination of various kinds is also a common theme in much of Fante's work.)

It probably doesn't matter too much what is true memoir and what is a somewhat embellished tale told to make his point about what growing up in Montreal was like just before, during and after WWII.  Some of the families on the street suffer when their sons come home wounded (and one with such severe PTSD that he never fully recovers) and of course some do not return at all from the front.  Probably the most important sociological point Richler makes is that the war is actually quite good for many of the families and they are able to buy their way into Outremont (and ultimately better schools for the next generation of children).  Of course, it was not clear at that point in time whether Jews would become fully accepted into Canadian society, but at least some of the overt racism was fading away.  (Obviously one of the great ironies is that the rise of Francophone political power (and culture) in Quebec returns Jews to their outsider status in the late 1960s after they had made considerable inroads into joining Montreal's elite.  Many Jews ultimately felt more comfortable (and that assimilation was more feasible) in Toronto, and only the "bloody-minded" hung on in Montreal, like Barney Panofsky from Barney's Version.)

One of the more amusing (though still melancholy) stories is about a writer who rents the back bedroom from Richler's parents.  In the beginning, only Richler's mother has much time for this artist, but after he gets in print in a middlebrow magazine, the father gets interested (and a young lady down the block starts giving the writer the time of day).  However, the writer is not able to sell his novel (at least he actually finishes one, unlike so many self-proclaimed writers) and he finally tells everyone he has a job offer from Hollywood, but actually slinks off back to Toronto. I thought this was an interesting book, though overall it is a minor work, mostly useful in filling in some of the gaps between The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and St. Urbain's Horseman.

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