My 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.