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The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky

by Karen X. Tulchinsky

Set in the harrowing years of the Depression, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, Karen Tulchinsky’s The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky is a major departure for the Vancouver novelist, screenwriter, and editor of lesbian fiction anthologies. The protagonist of her two previous titles, Love Ruins Everything and Love and Other Ruins, was a thirtyish Jewish lesbian, Nomi Rabinovitch. Here her central character is a champion Jewish middleweight boxer from the 1940s and ’50s, Sonny Lapinsky – male and committedly heterosexual. While in the earlier novels Jewish family life was a quirky backdrop for Nomi’s rocky romances, here it is the story.

Like other recent books, as well as such recent films as The Pianist and Nowhere in Africa, The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky reflects the urge to remember and understand the cataclysm of the mid-20th century before the last eyewitnesses disappear. The Toronto-born Tulchinsky must have heard plenty of family stories of the Jewish neighbourhood around College and Spadina in the 1930s and ’40s. She has filled out that backdrop with research on everything from streetcar routes to the price of a loaf of bread.

Her rich family saga incorporates many real events including a very dark night in the city’s history. On a hot August evening in 1933, during a softball game in Christie Pits park, a gang of young white thugs known as the “Swazis” clashed with Jewish youths. The riot that ensued left hundreds injured. Tulchinsky places Sonny Lapinsky and his three brothers in the park that night. Izzy, the youngest, never recovers. It’s a defining moment for the family, the tragedy that immigrating to the New World was supposed to put behind them forever.

The world Tulchinsky recreates is overwhelmingly male. Women play supporting roles, but the leading characters – brothers, friends, fighters, soldiers – are men. Sonny’s boxing career is driven by masculine emotions of rage and shame for failing to protect his little brother. Shame and pride estrange him from his father, who disowns him for marrying a Catholic Italian girl. Tulchinsky’s grip on this material is sure-handed, the scenes set in the boxing ring and on the battlefield entirely believable.

This is a breakthrough novel that should gain Tulchinsky a wider readership. Her fans, however, may be disappointed at the move away from the wit and lighter tone of her gender-themed novels. Not that she has abandoned those themes: one of the novel’s most vivid characters is the effeminate, bookish Lenny Lapinsky, who dies a hero’s death in the war. The book’s eponymous narrator, Moses, is a gay academic. A male narrator isn’t new to Tulchinsky’s work either: the two earlier books were told partly in the voice of Nomi’s HIV-positive cousin Henry.

Moses undertakes to set the public record straight on his father, but his “biography” embraces far more than Sonny’s life. It takes us back a generation as Sonny’s father, Yacov, is forced to flee Russia after striking out at the soldiers who raped his sister and killed his younger brother. It follows the Canadian fortunes of Yacov and his cousin, Max, as they lose in the stock market crash what little money they have, struggle to provide for their families, and finally fulfill their dreams of opening a discount store that bears a striking resemblance to Toronto’s Honest Ed’s.

Toward the novel’s end, Tulchinsky returns to the two events at the book’s heart: the 1913 Russian pogrom and the terrible night at Christie Pits. These are the only false steps in the headlong narrative thrust. We don’t need details of those soul-scarifying events; our imaginations have already filled them in. We also understand that the poisons that have turned Europe into a nightmare – human greed, envy, and hatred – have their counterparts in Canada, and even in the Lapinskys’ own hearts.