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Barney’s Version

by Mordecai Richler

The Barney of Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s 10th novel, learned to tap dance as a boy, a talent that comes in handy when he decides to write his memoirs and finds himself tap dancing – metaphorically anyway – around some of the more unseemly events in his rich and unseemly life. “Over the wasting years I have levered free of many a tight spot leaning on a fulcrum of lies large, small, or medium-sized. Never tell the truth. Caught out, lie like a trooper,” he says.

It’s a curious confession from a man who, at the age of 67, has decided to set the record straight about his Bohemian days in Paris in the 1950s, his circle of famous and infamous acquaintances, his wildly successful career as a television producer, and his three wildly unsuccessful marriages. Mostly, though, he is writing his memoirs to clear his name of the murder of his once-cherished friend, the nearly important writer Bernard “Boogie” Moscovitch.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Richler’s meandering story. The rest is commentary, but in Richler’s hands, the commentary is what counts. Crude and witty in equal measures, Barney’s Version is a novel in search of someone to offend. Among the targets are the Nation of Islam, the United Jewish Appeal, feminist lesbians, Quebec nationalists, CanLit poseurs, Jewish-American princesses, vegetarians, and Toronto.

Barney’s Version is also the portrait of a man who has wasted his life but had a pretty good time doing it. Barney Panofsky, a self-described “impenitent rotter…exalting in the transgressions of my betters,” is not so much a has-been as a never-quite-was, a born second banana, more observer than participant, more Boswell than Dr. Johnson. The kind of character, in fact, who’s always figured in Richler’s fiction, but who has seldom been the main focus of it. Except here there is no Dr. Johnson for Barney to be Boswell to, no Solomon Gursky or Duddy Kravitz to rely on, though Duddy does make a couple of very funny cameo appearances. At times, the absence of a larger-than-life character to spice up the narrative is a conspicuous one. The murdered Boogie, for instance, remains a shadowy figure, even in flashbacks, and Barney’s nemesis, Terry McIver, a CanLit icon who revives the accusations of murder against Barney, doesn’t prove to be much of a nemesis at all.

But maybe that’s what Richler intended this time around. Barney’s worst enemy is himself and that’s the point. What the story sometimes lacks in broad characterizations and big comic confrontations, it makes up for with a quality rare in a Richler novel – an unapologetic tenderness. For all his bad behaviour and misguided efforts, Barney is redeemed by his pride in his children and his unwavering regret about having lost the love of his third wife. It’s true Richler has always demonstrated a grudging fondness for even the worst of his characters, especially the worst of them, but he has never been so willing to allow love and affection to take over the story. He does in Barney’s Version and it turns out to be the novel’s saving grace.