My rating: 8.5/10
It’s been a good many years since I’ve read anything by Mordecai Richler, and reading The Street reminded me why: a little goes a long way. And I mean that in the very best way.
The Street was just long enough, at 142 pages, to be a quick one-evening read, a bracingly rude and somewhat startling experience which balanced the well-meant inanity of my other recent reading. The naïve earnestness of D.E. Stevenson’s rather silly Miss Buncle and the good natured ramblings of Georgette Heyer’s handsome dilettantes are decidedly mild pleasures in contrast to Richler’s sly, cheeky, say-anything Montreal ragamuffins and their bluntly outspoken elders. And I find that the mixing of genres here adds piquancy to all, with Richler’s pungent acidity emphasizing the good brown bread and airily sweet meringue of the others.
The Street is a collection of ten linked stories-slash-memoirs – fictionalized memoirs? – mostly following the narrator – Richler himself, one assumes – from childhood to adulthood. The anecdote here is everything, and Richler’s authorial voice is perfectly suited to these short pieces.
From the author’s Foreword:
‘Why do you want to go to university?’ the student counsellor asked me.
Without thinking, I replied, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, I suppose.’
One St. Urbain Street day cribs and diapers were cruelly withdrawn and the next we were scrubbed and carted off to kindergarten. Though we didn’t know it, we were already in pre-med school. School starting age was six, but fiercely competitive mothers would drag protesting four-year-olds to the registrarion desk and say, ‘He’s short for his age.’
‘Birth certificate, please?’
‘Lost in a fire.’
On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all. Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T. Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing. We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks. We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies. If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry. School marks didn’t count as much as rank. One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report. ‘I came rank two, Maw.’
‘And who came rank one, may I ask?’
The Jewish mothers in The Street fulfill every stereotype, being supremely ambitious for their children, yet never letting them get too full of themselves; chicken soup and sharp cuffs being administered with equal enthusiasm as maternal whim decides. To get ahead, to make good, to get away from St. Urbain Street and its taint of poverty-ridden struggle and the worst lingering despairs of the “Old Country” is what they wish for their children, and their self-imposed self sacrifice is both the bane of their families’ existence and the driving force which propels them all onward. In adulthood the children of those ubiquitous mothers begin at last to understand this and give homage; in childhood they merely endure and dodge the good advice and the blows with equal agility.
These stories are full of a sense of a very particular place and time, Montreal of the early 1940s, captured in microscopic detail of sight, sound and smell in Richler’s steel-trap memory. His boyhood companions are familiar to us from similar narrators and from Richler’s previous works; Duddy Kravitz is present, spouting off his knowing comments, and the author assumes we know who he is, assumes that his readers already know the context and are willing participants in the narrative. And while the scene here is unmistakeably this very small corner of Montreal, it is evocative of similar boyhoods and experiences in New York and London and any of the other key locales in the continual global diaspora and resettling of the Hebrew race.
For this is, above everything else, a very Jewish book, as well as being a Montreal book, and a Canadian book; Richler makes no bones about the uniqueness of this aspect of his own experience and of the importance of it in the scenes he so meticulously describes. His Jewishness is at the core of his very being; everything else is layered on top.
Heads up, gentle readers expecting a mildly humorous memoir, for this author is proud of his outspokenness and his humour has a cutting edge; it is also frequently bawdy, and full of the smuttiness of guffawing enclaves of adolescent boys. That hoary old dirty joke, “Bloomberg’s dead!”, is here on page 23, told with especial glee, and more of the same is scattered liberally throughout.
Mordecai Richler can be terribly rude, but he is also very, very good. I had forgotten quite how good. I do believe it is time for another visit with the one and only Duddy Kravitz.
Here are some other thoughts on The Street.