Knopf Canada, 1997
First published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
After eight long years, Mordecai Richler, the novelist, is back. His new book, Barney’s Version, made me realize just how much I had missed him.
As the title suggests, the book is an attempt by one man (Barney Panofsky) in what he senses are his declining years, to record his version of his life story. The impetus for this effort is the impending publication of the memoirs of one Terry McIver, a writer who was a marginal member of a pack of Barney’s compatriots in 1950’s Paris and whose work, in Barney’s own caustic opinion, could have been “justly neglected.” McIver’s memoirs implicate Barney in the disappearance (and suspected murder) of Barney’s best friend, the tremendously talented but apparently ineffectual Boogie. At the time, charges were laid against Barney and then dismissed, but he suspects that most people believe that he got away with murder. Thirty years later, he continues to insist on his innocence.
He’s a filthy rich, thrice-married, tap-dancing, possibly homicidal, self-described schlockmeister, who got his start importing cheese and made it big working tax loop-holes in the Canadian film industry. He fell in love forever on the night of his second marriage–but not with his new wife. Any version of Barney’s life is necessarily complicated.
The trouble is, Barney’s memory is giving him a little trouble. As he attempts to walk through his memories, from the early years in Paris to the day of Boogie’s disappearance, the reader is treated to a wonky, unpredictable ramble among the highways and byways of his life, with many side trips to revisit petty grievances, old resentments, lost loves and drinking buddies.
Alternately boorish and charming, nasty and nice, loving and hateful, Barney time after time, gains and then loses the reader’s confidence. Just when one feels inclined to believe that, as he insists, he loved his friend dearly and still hoped, one day, for his return, he admits that he is no longer sure whether he murdered Boogie or not. To make matters worse, he further admits that when cornered, he always lies. Is he a murderer?–the answer, for the reader, is the essential key to Barney’s character. We do eventually get our answer, but not from Barney.
The rambling nature of the narrative gives Richler ample opportunity to riff on some of his favourite themes. CanLit, feminists, the Quebec situation, all benefit from his acerbic attentions–politically correct sensibilities beware!
In the end, Barney’s Version is an unforgettable, funny, touching commentary on the essential sadness of living and aging, the nature of memory, the importance of family and the elusiveness of the meaning of any one life.