Mordecai Richler, 1959
the thirtieth book in the visitor recommendation
suggested by Adam Thompson
Last week I was talking to someone who had just spent some time out in sagebrush country with some MAGA‐hat‐wearing relatives who ranted about how Obama’s shadow government is trying to take everyone’s guns away. To me that sort of thing is a deal‐breaker—I just don’t have the bandwidth to interact with people like that. But apparently I am rare in this regard, because the posts by some of my left‐leaning Facebook friends tended to garner comments that… well, let’s just say that while reading those comments you could actually hear the sound of Fox News in the background as the authors typed them. Which is why I eventually had to stop reading my Facebook feed. Some would undoubtedly argue that I’m choosing to live in an echo chamber, and I have to admit, those comments did expose me to ideas that I’d never heard anyone actually articulate before. For instance, I once got into a back‐and‐forth with an acquaintance of an acquaintance who told me flat out that the amount of money a person made was the most accurate indicator of that person’s worth as a human being, and that making more money was the only true form of self‐improvement. But while I was gobsmacked to see someone state it so baldly, I knew that this ideology was an underpinning of a lot of right‐wing thought. After all, from what I’ve seen the most common motivation that Trump voters will admit to is “He’s a successful businessman! A successful businessman should be in charge!” That first part isn’t actually true—Trump played a successful businessman on TV, but in real life his finances are a house of cards propped up by Russian oligarchs and petty swindles—but in this case the truth doesn’t matter. What’s important is that a significant segment of the public takes it as a given that “a successful businessman should be in charge”—that that Facebook rando was right, that wealth is a meritocracy and that pursuing it is a kind of heroism. This idea is so ingrained in our culture that I once took a class from a professor who argued that it formed the basis of all American literature.
But there are other cultures. Yuri Slezkine argues that in Europe, century after century passed, kingdoms rose and fell, and one constant throughout was that the vast majority of people worked the land. Only three other occupations were considered respectable: aristocrat, priest, and soldier. All other work—things like medicine, moneylending, trade—was left to despised outsiders, chiefly the Jews, who found themselves painted as lowly, money‐grubbing hucksters for filling the roles they’d been forced into. Which brings me to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, whose title character we first meet as a juvenile delinquent in the Jewish neighborhood of Montreal, back in the days when Yiddish was Montreal’s third language. The book does not begin auspiciously—for quite a while it looks like the thrust of it is going to be “the sneering hoodlum is really crying on the inside”—but eventually it finds its footing. Duddy’s grandfather is from the old country, and having imbibed its ideology, longs to have a farm of his own and solemnly intones to Duddy that “a man without land is nobody”. Duddy, determined to make something of himself, uncritically absorbs this mantra, and once he’s out of high school, pretty much arbitrarily chooses quelques arpents de neige in Quebec’s Laurentian region and sets to the task of buying up the land in pieces as the current owners sell. This means that at unpredictable intervals Duddy needs to raise a lot of money quickly—particularly because other operators are out for the same land, not because “a man without land is nobody”, but because “all the wise money’s going into real estate today”. The largely comedic middle section of the novel covers the various schemes Duddy puts into motion in order to fulfill his quest: hawking black‐market lingerie, running a (failed) roulette game, smuggling pinball machines over the border, brokering deals between Jewish businessmen and gentile tycoons, launching a flimflam movie studio. Some consider Duddy a hero—his American sidekick certainly does—and others consider him at least an up‐and‐comer with bang and zip. But Duddy is confounded to discover that not everyone is impressed by his ability to come up with a buck by hook or by crook. For one thing, Canada is not exactly the United States, and Duddy is annoyed that the gentry he encounters consider the subject of money distasteful. Duddy also never quite catches on to the fact that when his French‐Canadian girlfriend is upset at him about something, offering her fifty dollars will not calm her down. But the main issue is that Duddy is Jewish, and in making himself into a huckster, he’s playing into a stereotype. Instead of being seen as the hero of a rags‐to‐riches “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” story, Duddy finds that he’s viewed as “a pusherke, a little Jew‐boy on the make”, who makes his relatives “sick and ashamed”. And while Duddy sometimes uses that as an excuse, blaming a few too many of his setbacks on anti‐Jewish sentiment, there obviously is a real double standard at work. After all, the neo‐Nazis who fill up imageboards with centuries‐old slurs about Jewish hucksterism are the same people who decided that hawking steaks and vodka and Chinese ties, running multiple failed casinos, cutting deals with shadowy foreign operators, and launching a flimflam university were just fine and not at all huckstery when they were the schemes of a racist gentile running for the presidency.