Sunday, April 27, 2008

Richler - Joshua Then And Now

Joshua Then And Now. Mordecai Richler. McClelland and Stewart. 1980. 'Joshua' was written about mid-way in Richler's career. It is one of his better books, unfortunately it is usually forgotten in favor of other 'big' books written before and after. The big three in Richler's opus, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain's Horseman, and Solomon Gursky Was Here, should be a big four, with Joshua Then And Now. Richler's last, lesser effort, Barney's Version, is over-praised - it was even given an award -out of respect for Richler's career rather than any merits the book might possess.

Joshua Then And Now opens with Joshua having suffered a serious injury. We are not told how or what. Almost immediately the book begins to jump back and forth through Joshua's life. We learn that his wife has had a traumatic experience, we learn something happened in Ibiza, Spain, which had a profound effect on their lives. We learn many other things, all of which are used as teasers to keep us reading for more detail. As the novel progresses we move through Joshua's entire life. Gradually more detail is provided, and other mysteries raised. For the most part this complex structure works brilliantly.

Joshua is both a mildly likeable and mildly unlikeable character, which is a Richler trademark. The mystery in Ibiza doesn't amount to very much, and so the sequences there could have been cut down drastically. We see how Joshua gradually, and unwittingly, sets himself up over many years for an eventual fall. Most of this is handled with finesse, but the LA events related to this are absurd. Otherwise, the LA scenes, and the Montreal and Paris scenes, are excellent.

There is much humor layered within the story, but at times Richler inserts an awkward 'comic scene', as though thinking random sequences of comic relief are needed to break up a story which has plenty of humor already. The mother character is prominent in the early sequences, but is used largely for comedy, and dismissed as 'loopy'. In two great scenes, we get the mother's point of view. There is excellent drama in these scenes, but their potential goes unused. She returns to brief 'comedy' references, and disappears for the last half of the book, excepting one brief mention. Also, given that Joshua is present in these dramatic scenes, it is absurd that he would, later in his life, dismiss her with the epitaph, 'my loopy mother'.

The Lake scenes, though good, sometimes try the reader's patience, largely because they are not up to the quality of the best scenes in the Montreal, Paris, and LA sequences. Toward the book's end, most remaining questions are answered, and the story finally returns to the 'present' of the opening. As the book ends, the hero, if not much wiser, is at least temporarily repentant.

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