It has become a stubborn habit of mine to never, ever read the inside or back covers of any book I intend to review. The cause was when I noted some years ago that earnest publishing house hacks, in a desire to hype the product for bookstore browsers, will all too frequently give the game away. You know what I mean; something along the order of, ‘It was an average day for the greengrocer Alphonsus Mickle until the dinosaur appeared and ate Alph’s mother.’ What!?! All pages leading up to the giant lizard’s appearance seem to be a waste and one certainly isn’t going to invest any time or compassion on Mrs. Mickle as any moment now she’ll be transformed into snack food. No, I find it much more pleasurable and intellectually engaging to start at page one without a single damn idea of where the author plans to lead the reader.
Once the final page has been read, all bets are off and I do take a look at the cover copy. In the case of Halbman Steals Home, there was exactly the phrase I’d expected to find: “With pathos and humour, Haldman Steals Home paints a Mordecai Richler-esque portrait of Montreal.…” I won’t say that B. Glen Rotchkin set out to imitate Richler; but if he said it of himself I’d take him at his word. Here’s an example:
Montreal was a city as bizarrely imagined as it was real, a place that had never lost its strange pedigree or appeal. Lately, it was the capital of festivals (jazz, comedy, movies, lobster), the birthplace of the Cirque du Soleil, a haven for video-game makers and pharmaceutical companies, the home of a spaceship-shaped Olympic Stadium, not to mention the first home of Major League Baseball in Canada. It was a melange of cultures and styles: a hodgepodge of sensibilities, perspectives and eras; a city of believers and the faithful, whether Catholics who climbed stairs on their knees, Hasidic Jews or Montreal Canadiens hockey fans. Above all, Montreal was a city that had won or lost, tried and failed, over and over again and somehow found its way. In a word, Montreal was home.
If Montreal was a woman, I think Rotchin just proposed. Halbman Steals Home at bottom line is a love letter to a city, although the shrewdly observant may notice in the excerpt above that francophones need not apply. The only real note about Montreal’s majority French is when the titular character Mort Halbman looks back in disbelief at a French family who moved down the block from his home at 92 Hampstead Road.
That observation is less damning than it may appear at first reading for that is a reality of Montreal or any other urban metropolis. If one wishes, one can live a long life within a cultural enclave, a sort of museum diorama of the old country no matter how many generations back one has to go to call that old country home. A short anecdote: When I moved to Toronto to work in politics I was fascinated to speak (sort of) with an elderly Russian woman who had moved to Toronto just after the Revolution. Some seventy years later, she still spoke absolutely no English however she did have a smattering of Portuguese as that was the second-most heard language in her West End neighbourhood. With apologies to Hugh Maclennan— two solitudes? It just starts there.
Still, and before we get totally carried away on an urban geography sidetrack, strong urban cultures make for fascinating cities and colourful novels alike. That was Richler’s greatest strength. Even more than his wordcraft, his plotting, his devastating wit that covered a spectrum from charming to wicked, it was his ability to make people like (oh let’s say) Irish Catholic teenagers from isolated parts of Ontario feel at home in a Jewish Montreal milieu that couldn’t be more remote from their personal experience even if the characters had green skin and tentacles.
Rotchin has that part down admirably. As Halbman, age sixty-five, looks at and back at his life there is that familiar taste of the deli, the little fractures within the Jewish community depending on one’s level of observance, and that same passion for sports. I sincerely longed for an egg cream while reading.
You will need to know a certain amount of the plot to understand the remainder of my opinion. Halbman is divorced, retired, in decent health and wealth, has two adult children who don’t call very often and the house he built and which was sold by his wife after the divorce has recently burnt to the ground. There are suspicions of arson. His adult son is planning a wedding to his male partner and is looking for an accommodating rabbi. Complications arise.
In final summary on the Richler comparison, if you love Mordecai Richler you’ll like B. Glen Rotchin; if you like Richler you’ll love Rotchin. There are the same sorts of episodes, like the unforgettable striptease birthday party in Joshua Then and Now, that remind one of the late master. A runaway teenage trip to California resulting in dating ladies of dubious profession is one. Mort ‘cooking the books’ by tossing his wife’s cursed self-help books into the fireplace is another. Those and more make for a soothing, gently comic feel.
I wish there had been more of an edge to Halbman Steals Home. If the metaphor of Mort’s love for the Montreal Expos and their final abandonment of the city for Washington is supposed to be central to Mort feeling emptied of his life, well that really just isn’t there. Mort does obsessively return to the burnt-out remains of 92 Hampstead, yet his mood is more cranky than gloomy. His life may not be perfect, but he seems to be coping quite nicely. Oh eventually a character rather thickly informs our hero that, ‘Mort—and again, please take this in the spirit in which it’s meant— you have difficulty trusting.’ I would have killed to have seen Mort reply, ‘And given that you’ve known me for forty years and only just got around to telling me this, evidently I was correct.’ Instead he chokes up.
I suppose it’s partially still having Julian Barnes’ similarly themed The Sense of an Ending still reasonably fresh in the memory that makes me wish Rotchin had dug just a bit deeper, put a character or two in a spot of peril, to kick Halbman Steals Home to the next level. It’s a very enjoyable novel, like visiting the memory of an old friend. Next time out, I just hope Rotchin risks being a little offensive. His humour can bear that weight.
Dundurn | 192 pages | $19.99 | paper | ISBN #978-1459701274