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Authors: Mordecai Richler

Son of a Smaller Hero

BOOK: Son of a Smaller Hero
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BOOKS BY MORDECAI RICHLER

FICTION
The Acrobats
(1954)
Son of a Smaller Hero
(1955)
A Choice of Enemies
(1957)
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
(1959)
The Incomparable Atuk
(1963)
Cocksure
(1968)
The Street
(1969)
St. Urbain’s Horseman
(1971)
Joshua Then and Now
(1980)
Solomon Gursky Was Here
(1989)
Barney’s Version
(1997)

FICTION FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang
(1975)
Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur
(1987)
Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case
(1995)

HISTORY
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country
(1992)
This Year in Jerusalem
(1994)

TRAVEL
Images of Spain
(1977)

ESSAYS
Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports
(1968)
Shovelling Trouble
(1972)
Notes on an Endangered Species and Others
(1974)
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays
(1978)
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album
(1984)
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions
(1990)
Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions
(1998)
On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It
(2001)
Dispatches from the Sporting Life
(2002)

ANTHOLOGIES
The Best of Modern Humour
(1983)
Writers on World War II
(1991)

Copyright © 1955 by Andre Deutsch Limited
Copyright © 2002 by Mordecai Richler Productions, Inc.

First published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart by permission of the author and Andre Deutsch Limited, 1965
First Emblem Editions publication 2002

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data

Richler, Mordecai, 1931-2001
Son of a smaller hero

eISBN: 978-1-55199-561-8

1. Jews–Quebec (Province)–Montréal–Fiction. I. Title.

PS
8535.138
S
6 2002      
C
813′.54      
C
2001-904143-8
PR
9199.3.
R
5
S
6 2002

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

SERIES EDITOR: ELLEN SELIGMAN

EMBLEM EDITIONS
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street,
Toronto, Ontario
M
5
A
2
P
9
www.mcclelland.com/emblem

v3.1

For Cathy

Contents
Author’s Note

Although all the streets described in this book are real streets, and the seasons, tempers, and moods are those of Montreal as I remember them, all the characters portrayed are works of the imagination and all the situations they find themselves in are fictional. Any reader approaching this book in a search for “real people” is completely on the wrong track and, what’s more, has misunderstood my whole purpose.
Son of a Smaller Hero
is a novel, not an autobiography.

If God did not exist, everything would be lawful
.

DOSTOIEVSKI

1
Summer
1952

N
OAH’S ROOM WAS ON THE FOURTH FLOOR. THE PLACE
had been recommended to him by a taxi driver who worked for the same company as he did. Mrs. Mahoney, the landlady, was a stringy woman with hands which were brown and bony, like twigs. She eyed him suspiciously as he set down his bags.

“Yer a young ’un, ain’t yer?”

Noah nodded. He had a brown sceptical face and a narrow body and long legs. He was twenty years old, but his forehead was already wrinkled. His eyes, which were black, were sorrowful and deep and not without a feeling for comedy. They had a quick tender quality as well. He grinned shyly. He wanted Mrs. Mahoney to go.

“No wimmin. No parties,” Mrs. Mahoney said. “Rent every Friday on the dot.”

Noah handed her a month’s rent in advance. He turned away from her and began to unpack, hoping that she would leave him. But without looking he knew that she was still there. He unpacked his books and dumped them on the bed.

Mrs. Mahoney picked up a copy of
The Naked and the Dead
.

“Medical student?”

“No,” Noah said.

The walls were a faded green but there was a clean unfaded spot where a cross had used to hang. The nail was still there. Noah stared at the nail and lit a cigarette. The window was open, but it was very hot.

“I’ve been driving all night,” Noah said. “I’m very tired. I’d like to sleep.”

Mrs. Mahoney hesitated. The last young man who had moved in with books had turned out to be a ballet dancer, a homosexual. She was tempted to wait until Noah took off his shirt to see whether he shaved under his armpits, but – feeling the rent money freshly in her hands – she decided against that. “Well,” she said. “I can’t stand here all morning.”

As soon as she left Noah lay back on the bed. He pulled a towel out of his suitcase and wiped his forehead clean of sweat. He was still angry about his last fare – a drunk and his girl. The drunk had worn a badge on his lapel. His name had been Pete somebody, and he had been in Montreal for the Lumbermen’s Convention. Looking into the rear-view mirror, Noah had watched him make the first pass and then sprawl clumsily over the girl. She had groaned a lot, making it hard for him to drive. She had reminded Noah of his Aunt Rachel. He had imagined her, like his Aunt Rachel, entering a room full of people who had been talking heatedly for an hour or so, and saying: “Well, have you settled all the world’s problems?” Anyway, when they had got in front of the Mount Royal Hotel, the man had insisted on tipping Noah ten dollars. Noah, inexplicably angry, had shoved the ten dollars back into the drunk’s jacket pocket. Now he was sorry. Ten dollars meant a week’s rent. He wanted to get a record player, too. Noah leaned over and squashed his cigarette on the floor. This is my room, he thought. He sighed, and he felt empty. There was little joy in that. He couldn’t help thinking about his mother and how she had looked at him when he had said that he was going. He went
over his reasons again. It was stifling at home … Melech … his father always apologizing.…

He fell asleep.

The ghetto of Montreal has no real walls and no true dimensions. The walls are the habit of atavism and the dimensions are an illusion. But the ghetto exists all the same. The fathers say: “I work like this so it’ll be better for the kids.” A few of the fathers, the dissenters, do not crowd their days with work. They drink instead. But in the end it amounts to the same thing: in the end, work in textile or garment factories. Some are orthodox, others void.

Most of the Jews who live at the diminishing end of the ghetto, on streets named St. Urbain, St. Dominique, Rachel, and City Hall, work in textile or garment factories. Some are orthodox, others are communist. But all of them do their buying and their praying and their agitating and most of their sinning on St. Lawrence Boulevard, which is the aorta of the ghetto, reaching out in one direction towards Mount Royal, and past that (where it is no longer the ghetto) into the financial district and the factory slums, coming to a hard stop at the waterfront. In the other direction, northwards, St. Lawrence Boulevard approaches the fields at the city limits; where there is a rumour of grass and sun and quick spurious love-making.

All day long St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing, and meat. Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French, and English. The street reeks of garlic and quarrels and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys. Swift children gobble pilfered plums, slower cats prowl the fish market. After the water truck has passed, the odd dead rat can be seen floating down the gutter followed fast by rotten apples, cigar butts, chunks of horse manure, and a terrifying zigzag of flies. Few stores go in for subtle
window displays. Instead, their windows are jammed full and pasted up with streamers that say
ALL GOODS REDUCED
or
EVERYTHING MUST GO
.

Every night St. Lawrence Boulevard is lit up like a neon cake and used-up men stumble out of a hundred different flophouses to mix with rabbinical students and pimps and Trotskyites and poolroom sharks. Hair tonic and water is consumed in back alleys. Swank whores sally at you out of the promised jubilee of all the penny arcades. Crap games flourish under lamp posts. You can take Rita the Polack up to the Liberty Rooms or you can listen to Panofsky speak on Tim Buck and The Worker. You can catch Bubbles Dawson doing her strip at the Roxie Follies. You can study Talmud at the B’nai Jacob Yeshiva, or you can look over the girls at the
A.Z.A
. Stag or Drag.

Conditions improve on the five streets between St. Lawrence Boulevard and Park Avenue. Most of the Jews who live on these streets market what is cut or pressed by their relations below St. Lawrence Boulevard. Others, the aspiring, own haberdashery stores, junk yards, and basement zipper factories.

The employer and professional Jews own their own duplexes in Outremont, a mild residential area which begins above Park Avenue. They belong to the Freemasons, or, if they can’t get into that organization, to the Knights of Pythias. Their sons study at McGill, where they are Zionists and opposed to anti-Semitic fraternities. They shop on St. Lawrence Boulevard, where the Jews speak quaintly like the heroes of nightclub jokes.

In the spring of 1952 the B’nai Brith published a report saying that anti-Semitism was on the decline in Canada and that the Jews joined with the great prime minister of this great country in the great fight against communism. The uranium market boomed. Dr. S. I. Katz,
O.B.E.
, told the Canadian Club that “The Jewish beavers of this land will help make the Maple Leaf a symbol of greatness.” But the spring passed fast. Those balmy days which had accounted for the melting of the snows turned longer and more hard. The sun
swelled in the sky and a stillness gripped the ghetto. When the heat was but two days old everyone seemed to have forgotten that there had ever been a time of no heat. This was partly sham. For, secretively, the people of the ghetto gloated over every darkening cloud. They supposed that tomorrow there would be rain, and if not tomorrow then at least the day after that. But the sky was a fever and there was no saying how long a day would last or what shape the heat would assume by night. There were the usual heat rumours about old men going crazy and women swooning in the streets and babies being born prematurely. When the rains came the children danced in the streets clad only in their underwear and the old men sipped lemon tea on their balconies and told tales about the pogroms of the czar. But the rains didn’t amount to much. After the rains there was always the heat again. The flies returned, the old men retreated to their beds, and all the missing odours of the heat reappeared with a new intensity.

BOOK: Son of a Smaller Hero
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