Book Talk: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

“He knew what he wanted, and that was to own his own land and be rich, a somebody, but he was not sure of the smartest way to go about it. Sure, everyone had to make a start, but it was getting late. Duddy was already seventeen and a half and he sure as hell didn’t want to wait on tables for the rest of his life. He needed a stake.”

“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” by Mordecai Richler (1959)

Duddy Kravitz is something of a terror. He doesn’t remember his mother and he and his brother, Lennie, have been raised by their cab-driving father, Max. The family are Jewish Anglophones living in Montreal. Duddy torments his teacher, Mr. MacPherson, at Fletcher’s Field High School until “Mac” starts drinking, loses his sickly wife and has to quit. Duddy feels the slightest twinge of guilt but needs to get on with his life. His zeyda (grandfather) hands Duddy just about the only pearl of wisdom he has gained in the new country.

“‘A man without land is nobody. Remember that, Duddel.'”

– After two generations of failure in Canada, the zeyda has high hopes for Duddy.

Duddy goes to work as a waiter at Rubin’s Hotel Lac des Sables in Ste Agathe des Monts in the Laurentian mountains. Most of the other boys are pre-med and the chasm between the classes is evident. The other boys, lead by Irwin Schubert, begin to dislike Duddy because he is tireless in his pursuit of money and also because Duddy emerges as the best waiter in the place. Irwin and Linda, the owner’s daughter, scheme to teach Duddy a lesson by getting him to bankroll a gambling night with some of the high-rollers vacationing at Rubin’s. Irwin owns the roulette wheel, knows it’s quirks and soon has Duddy cleaned out. The financial tragedy for Duddy is soon righted when Irwin returns the money and the high-rollers assuage their guilt by taking up a collection. The result is that Duddy now has something of a stake. He has also had a hard lesson in the condescension he has faced all his life from those better off than he. He directs some bile at Linda for her role in trying to rob him.

“‘Look at me’, he thought, ‘take a good look because maybe I’m dirt now. Maybe I’ve never been to Paris and I don’t know a painter from a horse’s ass. Take a good look, you dirty bitch. Maybe I’m dirt today. But you listen here, kiddo. It’s not always going to be like this. If you want to bet on something then bet on me. I’m going to be a somebody and that’s for sure’.”

– Duddy gives it to Linda, both barrels.

Duddy falls for a French-Canadian chambermaid while at Rubin’s named Yvette. She’s from the area and takes Duddy for a picnic to a secret spot she has known since she was a little girl. Duddy is gobsmacked. He has found the land he will strive to purchase, the land around a lake. He has plans for every field and every plot. Yvette listens intently; she believes in him and this encourages Duddy. He is only seventeen, though, and Yvette will have to sign contracts. Additionally, the local French-Canadian landowners will not want to sell to a Jew so Yvette will front for him. Duddy returns to his home and family in Montreal on St. Urbain Street, excited and ready to get started.

One of Duddy’s ideas leads him to Peter John Friar, a director of industrial films. Duddy – who now considers himself an independent film producer – asks Friar if he would be interested in making movies of weddings and bar mitzvahs and Friar agrees. Yvette comes down from the Laurentians to help out and Duddy secures a deal to film the bar mitzvah of young Bernie Cohen. Friar’s eccentric film is met with slack jaws but proves a hit; Duddy is rolling.

Brother Lennie gets caught up with anti-semitic “friends”, gets in a jam and lams it to Toronto. Max Kravitz and his brother, the boy’s Uncle Benjy, are relieved when Duddy brings Lennie home. This episode puts Duddy in contact with wealthy Hugh Thomas Calder and Duddy cultivates this association. One of Duddy’s many contacts, Virgil Roseboro, shows up with a business proposition and joins Dudley Kane Enterprises working with Duddy and Yvette. Virgil, a gentle epileptic, worships Duddy but Yvette watches closely, for fear Duddy will take advantage.

A building adorned with a mural depicting Richler. On rue Laurier ouest near Saint-Urbain. Courtesy MUMtl.org.

Rich Uncle Benjy is dying of cancer. Duddy refuses to take over running Benjy’s business and, when Benjy dies, he leaves Duddy his home but no money. Duddy approaches the neighbourhood hero, gangster-type Jerry “The Boy Wonder” Dingleman, hoping for a loan. Duddy is beginning to buy up the plots of land around the lake but needs a substantial cash infusion. What the Boy Wonder agrees to do is to loan him $500, take Duddy with him to New York – and have Duddy carry one of his suitcases back across the border.

Virgil works tirelessly driving a truck for Duddy until Virgil has a seizure and gets in a wreck, emerging paralyzed. Duddy is consumed with guilt and goes into a spiral that results in his being forced to declare bankruptcy with still a few more plots of land to be purchased. Finally summoning the courage to face Virgil again, Duddy moves in with him and Yvette, who has begun looking after Virgil. Duddy can’t raise a dime and Yvette is happy he is no longer running. When the final plots of land come up for sale, though, Duddy gets the fever again. He makes one last push to obtain all the land but this time it may come at the cost of his friends, his family and his soul.

St. Urbain has undergone extensive gentrification lately. Courtesy Google Maps.

I was a high school student for six, count ’em, six years. In my day, it was a five-year stretch but I stayed an extra year because I had no plans. In Year Five, Grade 13 or OAC – Ontario Academic Credits – I took an excellent English Lit course taught by the venerable Mr. Doug Roberts. Beard, tweeds, leather elbow patches, great guy. In the fall of this school year, we studied this book, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by legendary Canadian man of letters, Mordecai Richler. I was absolutely captivated by the book. By its Canadian flavour, yes, but also by its voice, its humour, by the wonderful way Richler handles dialogue and mostly by the character of Duddy. To me, this book had the same freewheeling nature of The Catcher in the Rye. To my horror, when I was choosing courses to take for my extra year of high school, the guidance counselor informed me there were no more English courses I had not yet taken. You see, at that time in this country you needed five English credits to graduate; I already had six. I decided to take Mr. Roberts’ English Lit course again. Now I’m starting to digress but indulge me.

When I informed Mr. Roberts I’d be seeing him again next year, he seemed off-put. “But it’s the exact same curriculum”, he said. “Great”, I replied. The big Independent Study in English Lit involved writing an essay on a chosen aspect of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The first year I took this course, I could not for the life of me read Steinbeck’s classic tome. I couldn’t get past the first eleven pages depicting the turtle crossing the road. I wanted to throw myself out the window. Subsequently, I did not hand in an Independent Study essay, which dropped me from a course mark in the high 80’s to one in the 60’s. My plan for the second go-round in this course was to write as an essay a biography of Steinbeck (Non-Fiction, I called it). I never did read The Grapes of Wrath until many years later; Steinbeck is now one of my favourite authors. So, my last year of high school I picked up my seventh English credit and I also picked up an intense love for the book we are looking at today. It became an autumn tradition for me and I’ve now read it nine times; which is one more than the number of times I’ve read my other favourite book, On the Road.

Mordecai Richler. Author, satirist, curmudgeon. © Montreal Gazette.

Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) was a Jewish Canadian born on St. Urbain Street in Montreal, the city where he died at age 70. In between, he was a renowned and controversial satirical novelist and commentator on the Jewish community in Canada and he was staunchly critical of Quebec nationalism. Richler’s home province has long had a substantial faction that actively promotes secession from the rest of Canada. One of Richler’s many non-fiction books satirized Quebec’s language laws and the suppression of the use of English throughout the province. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992) was savaged by Members of Parliament and was even compared to Mein Kampf. But Richler’s charming, comical novels that usually were set in his hometown of Montreal and amongst the Jewish community are embraced by the majority of the country. His blunt way of speaking his mind and his seemingly curmudgeonly manner has endeared him to many.

As I have related, Mordecai Richler’s novels are studied in Canadian classrooms and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was his first successful work. Duddy made appearances in three subsequent Richler works including his last book, Barney’s Version (1997), which was made into a stunning and award-winning film starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman. And, yes; in later life, Duddy is successful if unhappy. Richler also is the author of the Jacob Two-Two series of children’s books that began with 1975’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang.

Duddy Kravitz was filmed in 1974. The excellent and faithful movie was co-scripted by Richler, work for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; no shame in losing that Oscar to The Godfather Part II. The movie was directed by Toronto’s Ted Kotcheff who filmed two other scripts of Richler’s, Life at the Top (1965) and Fun With Dick and Jane (1977). Kotcheff would go on to direct the mini-series Joshua Then and Now, based on a Richler novel, First Blood (1981) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). The movie starred Richard Dreyfuss in only his second starring role (after American Graffiti) as Duddy. It also features Max Warden as Duddy’s father, Randy Quaid as Virgil (his 6th film), Montreal native Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No) and Denholm Elliott – always a great drunk – as Friar. The film is delightful and was at the time of its release the most successful Canadian film ever released.

Clip courtesy The Canadian Academy.

I could write a series of articles on Duddy Kravitz. I could start a whole other website and devote it to this book and the film. In the interest of brevity, I’ll try to keep my analysis to the most charming aspects of this novel, to the things that might be strongest in referring the book to readers, particularly those outside Canada. For Canadians, there is a real familiarity in this story and part of this obviously stems from the physical locations. After all, Montreal, the Laurentian Mountains, Ste Agathe des Monts and Toronto are places in Canada. But more than that there is a mood to some of the scenes that we can relate to; I’m thinking specifically of the scenes in Duddy’s Tupper Street apartment. These scenes are very atmospheric and well described. Company comes, records and pinball are played, sandwiches eaten while outside the snow falls…

“Some sixty miles from Montreal, set high in the Laurentian hills on the shore of a splendid blue lake, Ste Agathe des Monts had been made the middle-class Jewish community’s own resort town many years ago. Here, as they prospered, the Jews came from Outremont to build summer cottages…”

More generally speaking, Mordecai Richler has an infinite knack for conversation. Reading an exchange between two or more of his wonderfully defined characters puts you right in the middle of the action. I can trace the fact that I always like to keep my writing very colloquial and conversational back to Richler’s technique in this book. He writes like people speak, as I try to.

The novel is loaded with comedy and much of it springs from the fact that Duddy and his family have had to for years negotiate life among the Gentiles. But far from being restricted to ethnic humour, Richler’s characters embrace the challenges and absurdities of life with a wry smile, a chuckle and a shake of the head. And often the comedy is just that; characters, scenes and lines that will bring a smile and often laughter. Drunken film director Friar once made a film for an oil company in Venezuela that won an award in Turkey. Friar’s film Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie is described in perhaps the funniest scene in the book. The bombastic, overblown movie focuses more on obscure symbolism including a close-up look at a circumcision whereas Duddy would prefer simple shots of the family. Friar eventually crumbles, lamenting that he has “sold my soul to the Hebrews”. After falling for Yvette, Friar leaves Duddy in the lurch. Incidentally, Mr. Cohen buys the film of his son’s bar mitzvah but is livid with Duddy when he later finds out it is “amateur night in Dixie”.

“‘You lousy, intelligent people! You lying sons-of-bitches with your books and your socialism and your sneers. You give me one long pain in the ass. It’s easy for you to sit here and ridicule and make superior little jokes because you know more than me, but what about a helping hand? You think I should be running after something else besides money? Good. Tell me what. Tell me, you bastard. I’m going to own my own place one day. And there won’t be any superior drecks there to laugh at me or run me off.'”

– Uncle Benjy considers Duddy a pusherke; “a little Jew boy on the make. Guys like you make me sick and ashamed”. But Duddy has encountered condescension all his life and combating this helps fuel his desire to “be somebody”.

There is a point about two-thirds into the book when Richler ascends into the rapturous. The action comes fast and furious and the writing style takes the reader right into Duddy’s frenetic business dealings. Friar has been on a toot and the footage for the Farber wedding is unusable. Duddy yells at Friar to come up with “some of those dopey montages” while Yvette warns against it. Duddy’s in arrears on all his bills and takes it out on Yvette; “‘Who’, he shouted, ‘called Ste Agathe three times last week?'” and then he promptly sends out for coffee. When Yvette predicts Duddy will soon fall flat on his face, he calls his brother to get him some benzedrine. Duddy calls his wealthy new friend, Hugh Thomas Calder, and is told he’s out of town; tough break. Will Uncle Benjy lend him money? “‘I’d drop dead before I gave him the pleasure’.” There’s a knock on the door and Duddy is sure it’s about his parking tickets but it’s Virgil with the ten pinball machines Duddy said he’d buy. What timing. The three head off to the border to pick up the machines and then head right up to the Laurentians to start selling them to the hotels. Duddy drops exhausted into a hotel bed but Virgil picks this time to tell Duddy about his epilepsy…. The reader feels like he’s been popping Bennies right along with young Mr. Kravitz.

“‘There are times when I wonder what I ever saw in you.’

‘You do, eh? Well, I’ll tell you. You know what you saw in me? You saw a young guy who was going to make it. You saw a pretty good life ahead. Don’t look at me like that either. Let’s be frank. If not for me you might have been a lousy chambermaid for the rest of your life. Don’t! You try to slap me and I’ll kick your teeth in. “Sometimes I wonder what I ever saw in you.” Don’t make me laugh.'”

– Duddy likes to talk straight, often with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

After Virgil’s wreck, Duddy has to declare bankruptcy and has a nervous breakdown that Richler describes like a fever dream. Afterwards, Duddy is driving his father’s cab and picks up Mr. Cohen as a fare. Duddy tells Cohen he had to file for Chapter 11. Knowing Duddy so well and recognizing him as a kindred soul (“Wow! What a liar!”), Cohen replies “Gangster. What did you clear on it?” Duddy says he’s really broke, a failure, and Cohen takes a paternal interest in Duddy. Cohen explains that in twenty-five years in the scrap business, Cohen has had to engage in shady dealings many times. You have to do such things, Cohen says, to look after your family. Duddy feels guilty because he knew Virgil could have a wreck and Cohen says he never knew Duddy was such a softie.

“‘Then pull yourself together, Moishe, and stop being a woman. Make yourself hard.'”

Cohen insists that a man must do what he has to do to support his loved ones. But even in this significant scene, Richler can’t help gently poking fun at the way men like Mr. Cohen still looked at the world; “‘So a goy is crippled and you think you’re to blame. Given the chance he would have crippled you,’ he shouted, ‘or thrown you into the furnace like six million others. You think I didn’t lose relatives? I lost relatives’. ‘Jeez’, Duddy said. ‘Wait a minute. Virgie is no Nazi.'”

Ste Agathe des Monts. Courtesy la Presse Touristique.

We all have those books that have made a major impact on our lives, the books that have penetrated deep into our beings. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz has done that to me. Many phrases from the book have entered my lexicon, scenes often spring to my mind and characters are burned into my memory. Along with the film and Richler’s other novels, it has defined anti-semitism for me and illuminated Jewish people for me as well. Indeed, the Jewish experience in Montreal is a character itself in the novel. Duddy has been influential in my life; he’s taught me how to pursue what you want but also the character pitfalls to avoid. But more than all this – and I know a lot of you will know what I mean – this is a book that I clutch tight to my bosom. And my love for it comes not only from reading it; the memories of the times I’ve read it are also near and dear to me.

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