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I can’t believe Duddy Kravitz is 50

Mordecai Richler’s son writes about the legacy of one of our most iconic characters


 

I can't believe Duddy Kravitz is 50My stepdaughter, aged 15, has taken to sleeping in the Baron Byng T-shirt my late father brought back from his high school reunion some years back—not sure where she found it. Wearing it seemed a reasonable cue for suggesting she read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. “You’re old enough,” I said—as, in the back of my mind, I remembered how my father once found me, his impudent teenage son, reading Cocksure and told me the opposite. My father knew randy adolescent lads—God’s Little Acre and all that—and I imagine what he’d really meant by his reproach was, “You’ll be disappointed, go buy a dirty magazine instead.”

My father, note, never handed me a book of his—not even among the dozen that he gave me when, aged 15, I went to work in a Yukon bush camp (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Dickens’s Hard Times but also The Art of Kissing among them)—just as he never included any of his own pieces in anthologies he edited. I was assigned Duddy Kravitz at school and then again at CEGEP where, asked to compare it with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I wrote a story in which Duddy came on to Daisy at a publishing party, the imposter Jay knowing exactly what was going on. Dad liked it but my professor was not amused. I got a 50.

At least the novel was taught, then. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, it astonishes even me, was first published 50 years ago. Perhaps the movie with Richard Dreyfuss has left it feeling younger. At any rate, this sort of anniversary is less likely to be noticed now that it is quite possible to graduate from the country’s high schools without having read a single Canadian novel. Even when schools do have the option of teaching it, a lot don’t bother. When my nephew asked to study Duddy Kravitz he was told by his teacher not to. It was, he said, “too complicated.”

How, I wonder? My father’s novel furnished Canada with one of its most iconic characters, one so much in the culture that we know perfectly well what is meant when someone identifies with him. I remember Mitch, a young intern who worked for my wife, a publisher, and who ate far too much deli just to entrench the point of his irrepressible ambition. Dov Charney, the libidinous owner of American Apparel who, like Duddy, was born in Montreal and is often compared to him. And of course Michael Budman, the Roots co-founder and a pal of my father’s who, after a swim in the beautiful Algonquin Park lake where he has a cabin (“a man without land is nobody”), leaned back in his Muskoka chair, his wet legs extended and his hands folded behind his head, and said, “I am Duddy Kravitz.”

These are different proclamations than Jews of my father’s generation made, many misunderstanding how a novelist works and thinking they may actually have been him. These are the boasts of second- and third-generation immigrants loving the permission that has been provided them by Duddy’s having carved out a place for himself in the new world on his own terms. It is about success—Duddy, in Barney’s Version, flying first class and not Concorde so that he can “stroll back through club and economy and all those shits who used to look down their nose at me can see how well I’m doing and choke on it.”

That side of Duddy, mischievous and true, was alive and well in my father all his writing life. As was the pleasure he took in being a regular, evident in the wonderful last words of that novel he wrote 50 years ago. Duddy, short of cash, asks his father to settle the bill and the waiter says, “That’s all right, sir. We’ll mark it.”

“You see,” [Duddy] said, his voice filled with marvel. “You see.”

As meaningful to my father as any plaudits I may have won were those occasions when I, too, could prove that I was a regular, my credit bona fide. In other ways, he and Duddy were miles apart. I laugh now remembering how, after the PQ victory of ’76, my father and I stood with an Eastern Townships pal of his, surveying a piece of land across the valley from the Mont Sutton ski hill that he thought I should buy—seven acres with water rights, the rock face of the hill behind, meaning no one could build higher. The farmer wanted a paltry $4,000—twice my student savings, though my dad was ready to lend me the rest—but all three of us shrugged. It didn’t seem quite worth it, then, this packet of land that would be worth God knows what sum now.

Oh, that we had been in the company of the real Duddy, then.


 

I can’t believe Duddy Kravitz is 50

  1. the apprenticeship of duddy kravitz…a man with no land is nobody firmly etched in my mind…the finest book one could have experienced as an adventure starved wide eyed little guy just waiting to kick start a life….mine! in 1999 at the tiff i missed shaking hands with the brilliant master mind of duddy kravitz but passed on it and only gave each other a nod of acknowledgement…i was saddened immensely of this gentlemans' passing…
    the movie was one of the best ever….Mordecai Richler helped build a generation of dreamers as a result of his imaginative work…rip my friend your son seems to be folowing in your steps! all the best Noah….

  2. One of the best Canadian fiction books ever written. Any ambitious young man from a lower or middle class family can easily identify with the main character.

    I recently saw the movie on television. A great adapation.

  3. the bar room and pool playing friends of mordecai;in downtown montreal;could/should regale his admirers with their memories of him etc;etc! i being from downtown montreal and of the same generation would have loved to be in the same salons that he frequented;just to hear the banter (back and forth) between them. i knew of a few of his friends that he preferred to hang out with; and they were indeed characters and worldly!lol! mordecais friends;speak up! i think that he would approve.lol

  4. I was thinking of the spare parts men from Cocksure just the other day as I was ruminating on the plight of people on ODSP who need endless forms filled out by doctors but can’t get the forms signed because they can’t find a doctor. People with disabilities and good extended health benefits do not appear to have these difficulties. They have spare parts men.

    What remark was it that made the anti-hero think of getting spare parts men in the first place? . . . Oh, yeah. now I rembember.

    I’m 60 and I still laugh at great moments in Richler’s work. Quebec bought the PQiste, but it didn’t crumble. You should have embraced the revolution tranquille, Noah.

  5. I know of Moredcai Richler but had not yet heard of his character Duddy Kravitz specifically, or that a film was made about the book also called "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz". After some quick online research it appears the movie was actually quite good! so I'll be sure to track down a copy of it and the book as well. Thanks, Macleans, for writing at least one more article about this nation's art – and at least one less article about the books, movies and culture of the United States. In fact, please don't write any more about the USA at all. There are copious other magazines, TV shows, movies, etc. that promote more than enough of that nation's tired old voice.

  6. I am one of the few English teachers I know who still teaches it! I’m a Can Lit grad and want to keep our literature alive in high school. The students enjoy the book, especially the boys who like reading about themselves, to some degree(immature and ambitious jerks)!

    Still love Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy in that movie. A remake would not be the same.

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