June 26, 1997
"Barney's Version"by Mordechai Richler, (Knopf, $25)
Like some of his Jewish contemporaries to the south, Canadian novelist Mordechai Richler has mined a literary career from thefertile terrain of assimilationist Jewish culture, most notably inbooks such as "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" and "Joshua Thenand Now." He returns to that familiar ground for his latest novel,"Barney's Version," but this time around, the trip is a bust.
The anti-hero narrator of this tediously self-satisfied book isBarney Panofsky -- a vulgar, thrice-married TV producer who findshimself approaching old age with all the grace and dignity of a nudemud wrestler on crystal methamphetamine. Barney recounts his lifestory, taking plenty of timeouts along the way to nurse ancientgrudges, crack predictable jokes and whine repetitively about hisfading memory.
Richler wants Barney to simultaneously shock and delight thereader, much like a salty, uncensored Jewish uncle who skewers hisfamily's P.C. pretensions at the dinner table. But Barney is neitherterribly interesting nor original. He seems like a tired Jackie Masongag stretched to book length, not a full-bodied character. Hismeandering, colloquial tone is uninvolving and claustrophobic. Hismemory tales read more like contrived mini-pitches for TV than thewell-constructed layers of a fictionalized life: see Barney andfriends as bohemian wannabes in postwar Paris; listen as Barneygrumbles inevitably about his health-nut daughter-in-law or the fateof his favorite hockey team. All that's missing here is a laughtrack, a storyboard and a rim shot.
The author has managed to pack an awesomely dense amount ofclichés, stale humor and annoyingly cute literary mannerismsonto each page, but the end product is curiously weightless. For areally masterful novel centered around one man's modern Canadianlife, check out instead Carol Shields' brilliant new book, "Larry'sParty." If it's the inner and outer life of a Jewish NorthAmerican male you're after, go directly to Philip Roth's latest, "American Pastoral." Compared with these two "versions," Barney'sdoesn't even come close.