Review: Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler Print E-mail

richler(San Diego Union-Tribune May 4, 1990)

Oh, Those Antinomian Canadian Jews

This novel is so-o-o-o-o interminable—like I'm a guest at a wedding where 300 relatives gaggle on and on about that shocking second cousin, Marla, and I'm bozoed with boredom.

Another drink, sir? Then it spits, fires, leaps up, and—whoosh—races forward, a fire truck caterwauling by, and me on my bike racing to catch up with the tire-peeling adventure.

Quiet down. Keep reading.

Then, 75 pages in, I'm hollering, "Where The Hell Does This Thing Begin?" Is it 1851, with the original Gursky, the trickster Ephraim, outcast Jew of the world, swindling a Canadian town with news of Christ's second coming?

No, it's 1983, and it's Moses Berger who has spent 30 years unraveling the Gursky family saga, trying to finish his biography of Solomon, the most notorious and mysterious grandson of Ephraim. Story within a story—one starts, one stops; both disappear.

And then there are more stories—four generations' worth.

Hold on to Moses' obsession.

Why? I don't know.

He doesn't know.

But the hunt for Solomon Gursky leads this former Rhodes Scholar and famous Canadian book reviewer (a reviewer-hero no less) to depression, alcoholism and sexual dysfunction. Some hero. As with all good snoops, Moses' maniacal inquisitiveness makes him act like the thing he tracks.

However, the more journals, letters and anecdotes about the Gurskys he finds, the more he sinks into their moral squalor. Truth usually triggers despair; only later, freedom.

Author Mordecai Richler writes like a modern-day Swift, bitterly satirizing our unflattering pasts with the wisdom of hindsight, and this culturally gruesome tale has a lot of despair to uncover. A little clan history: Ephraim Gursky, an expatriate Russian Jew, kicked out of Victorian England for philandering, volunteers to go on Sir John Franklin's expedition to find a Northwest Passage in 1845. When the ship is frozen in the waters of upper Canada, he somehow escapes, becomes a deity to an Eskimo tribe and eventually teaches the visiting Solomon tricks of the raconteur. Solomon, along with Bernard and Morrie (the three sons of Aaron, who is one of Ephriam's 27 sons), become millionaires, bootlegging imported Scotch whiskey to American rumrunners during prohibition.

Eventually brought to trial, they are acquitted after they bribe the right folk. But Bernard, the hands-down winner of the-most-ruthless-bastard-ever award, betrays Solomon, hoping to save his hide from prosecution.

Solomon's guilty (huh?) response is to Amelia-Earhart himself away, far north, perhaps to circumnavigate the globe, seeking out remnants of his take-no-crap grandfather and leaving behind samples of his own stool. Moses, continuing his search for the detritus of Solomon's life, treks all over Canada, eventually to an Eskimo village where Henry, Solomon's son, lives as an orthodox Jew. Moses never finds Solomon, never finishes the bio—and we get the feeling he wasn't supposed to. Richler's novel is an apocryphal revelation about the Jewish family in a Jew-marginalizing Canada, linking the frontier to the modern.

His twist, of course, is to show that Jew to Jew the same kinds of manipulation occur. But more than explicating Jewish neuroses, Richler captures most virulently the psychological geography of Canada, a country built—like the United States—by the dissatisfied, Jew and Gentile alike. "Canada," Richler writes, "is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples.

French Canadians consumed by self-pity; the descendants of Scots who fled the Duke of Cumberland; Irish the famine; and Jews the Black Hundreds . . . Most of us are still huddled tight to the border, looking into the candy-store window, scared by the Americans on one side and the bush on the other." Saying that Richler combines narrative tedium and quickness (without any authorial intrusion) is to say the book is a stubborn read.

While the expatriate's manic-depressive condition rings true, the novel, his first in 10 years, clunks along, overworked and gizmo-laden, a garage-built kinetic machine tinkered into existence.

Every cheap vaudeville bit is here, whether scatological or aimed at the dumb shiksa, and one tires of every thing Richler's orgasmic mind invents. But this darkly comedic immigrant novel of the New World is seductive, composed as a sort of penance to those who over-excessed before us.

Like acid rain, our heritage, I suppose, is just as toxic.