This Horseman holds a mirror; There's much of Mordecai Richler in his fiction
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 September 2007)

Mordecai Richler often said he thought a novelist should serve as "the loser's advocate." He successfully demanded our sympathy for Duddy Kravitz, that consummate hustler, whose desperate circumstances turn him into an appalling character. But Richler never played loser's advocate so well as when he created Harry Stein, the pathetic little creep who moves the plot in St. Urbain's Horseman, Richler's 1971 novel.

Harry slithers crab-like along the edges of the book but shifts toward the story's centre in the four-hour miniseries adaptation on the CBC tomorrow night and Thursday. He's more prominent in the TV version because the scriptwriters understand that his clumsy machinations turn this complicated satire into something like a drama. And Michael Riley, playing Harry, exhibits a lovely talent for over-the-top, salacious villainy. (Riley was recently the crazy lawyer, Elliot Sacks, on the CBC's courtroom comedy This is Wonderland.)

Harry, a bookkeeper, makes obscene phone calls to famous actresses whose numbers he's found in the files of his boss, an accountant to the stars. He's obsessed with his inability to succeed with women, realizing he's doomed to remain one of the sexually deprived for his whole wretched life. Naturally, he despises the talented and the beautiful.

His devious sexual schemes draw Richler's hero, Jake Hersh, into serious trouble with the police. Throughout the novel and the miniseries, Jake faces, thanks to Harry, a possible jail sentence for a rape that never happened.

Readers automatically despise Harry, but Richler explores his character's feelings so well that we can imagine how ghastly it is to be Harry. Possibly Jake befriends him, to the point of lending him his house, because he recognizes a fellow obsessive.

Jake's obsession is more exotic. A Canadian TV director working in London, Jake is consumed by dreams about his cousin, Joey Hersh, the Horseman, whom he knew briefly long ago and has idolized ever since. Jake sees his family as narrow-minded, mean and unadventurous, and sometimes he doesn't think all that well of himself, either. As his self-loathing grows, so does his admiration for Joey. He speculates about Joey's whereabouts and wonders what he's really like. He's convinced that somehow Joey has answers for him. In fact, he dreams that the Horseman, who sounds like a heroic figure out of romantic literature, will redeem them all.

Like the book, the miniseries embodies the acrimonious relations between Richler's characters and the Jews of Canada. Richler, and the Richler-like protagonists he wrote about, didn't dislike the Jews, as some Jews suspected. What Richler (expressed here through Jake) resented about them was their assumption that they owned him and that it was his duty to make them look as admirable as possible. In the miniseries, this crops up when Jake's Uncle Abe (Elliott Gould) says to him, "You're a good Jewish boy" and Jake snarls, "Don't claim me."

Jake finds solace in fantasies about Joey risking everything to hunt down war criminals, especially the most vile of death-camp murderers, Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. Jake dreams of Joey riding through Paraguay, Mengele's hiding place, closing in for the kill. In the book, the first page tells us that the clock in Jake's office shows Asuncion time, so that Jake can know what his hero might be doing at any given moment.

As the Horseman moves restlessly around the world, he communicates with his family only through rare and enigmatic postcards. But Jake believes he's always on the side of justice, fighting for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, helping the Jews create Israel by battling the Arabs in 1948.

Readers and viewers will eventually suspect that the Horseman's exploits are mainly Jake's delusion. Joey may even be what the rest of the family considers him -- a bum, a cheat, a drunk, a runaway father, and a smuggler. That's the opinion Uncle Abe holds, to Jake's righteous horror.

The script of the miniseries honours the tone of the original without being unduly bound by it. Now and then, it falls into tired dialogue, including the world champion among movie cliches, the all-purpose advice offered in times of anxiety: "Try and get some sleep."

Peter Moss, who directed the film version of Michael Ignatieff 's Scar Tissue and produced the TV series based on Richler's Jacob Two-Two, has his faults. He likes party scenes too much and doesn't realize he can't handle them. His opening, involving two men and a nearly naked woman, runs too long and turns farcical just when we should understand something serious is happening.

Still, Moss shows an intelligent understanding of the Richlerian world and, in most cases, his actors are at home there. David Julian Hirsh plays Jake as a man whose firm ambition wars with his unappeasable conscience. Moss considers the novel a love story of a particular kind, focussed on understanding. As he says, "All of us want to be known by the person we love." How can Jake's wife Nancy (Selina Giles) understand this strangely twisted but fundamentally attractive man she's married?

He has unpredictable bursts of anger at almost anything, even his own success, but he's also capable of a generous love. One way and another, Jake finally explains himself to her; and, as Selina Giles plays Nancy, she's knowing enough to accept his explanation. And what about her? Nothing accounts for her astonishing patience, but that, too, is purely Richlerian. He had many excellent qualities. An ability to write about women was not among them.

While complaining here and there, Richler's admirers will enjoy the development of a favourite book in a new form. The story takes place in 1967, the year Richler's father died, the same year Jake's father dies. Like the real son, the fictional one confesses that he loved his father without respecting him.

In the second episode, there's a farewell scene at the airport in London between Jake and his mother, played by Andrea Martin as a harridan who eventually slips out of her Jewish-mother armour and reveals the human being beneath it. In tone, and to some extent in content, the scene closely duplicates a farewell between Richler and his mother that I witnessed at Expo 67. Among other things, the miniseries of St. Urbain's Horseman reminds us of how often, and how effectively, Richler aligned his fiction with his life.

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