Ebullient and perverse, thrice married, Barney Panofsky has always clung to two cherished beliefs: life is absurd and nobody truly ever understands anybody else. But when his sworn enemy publicly states that Barney is a wife abuser, an intellectual fraud and probably a murderer, he is driven to write his own memoirs. Charged with comic energy and a wicked disregard for any pieties whatsoever, Barney's Version is a brilliant portrait of a man whom Mordecai Richler has made uniquely memorable for all time. It is also an unforgettable love story, a story about family and the riches of friendship.
Readers may never love Barney Panofsky, the self-destructive, self-loathing, derisive, womanizing, hot-tempered antihero of Richler's latest novel. But by the end of what he calls "this story of my wasted life,'' one feels sorrow and pity for a heartbroken man. At 68, Barney can't believe that the promising future that beckoned during the 1950s in Paris, when he was part of a group of would-be writers, was never fulfilled. After the suicide of his neurotic first wife, poet and feminist icon Clara Chambers, Barney returns to Montreal and becomes a producer of trashy TV commercials and films, marries again, disastrously, and later is accused of the murder of his mentor and best friend, the writer Bernard (Boogie) Moscovitch, whose body has never been discovered. Barney's guilt and grief over his role in Boogie's disappearance, his jealousy over the literary stardom of another Paris acquaintance, Terry McIver, and his heartsick knowledge that his selfishness, boozing and philandering were responsible for the departure of his beloved third wife, Miriam, have left him a hollow shell. Not that the novel is a downer, however. Though sometimes Barney's woes dampen the narrative tension, Richler still excels in writing hilarious, ribald scenes, many of them set in bars or in bed. The social fabric of Montreal continues to provide rich material, especially in characters who rose from its working-class Jewish neighborhood (Duddy Kravitz and members of the Gursky family make cameo appearances). Even Barney's attempts to deal with his increasing memory lapses will raise rueful laughter. Always irreverent, Richler is particularly uninhibited here, taking swipes at Philip Roth and Princess Di as well as other figures, wading into the issue of anti-Semitism with his dukes up. The knockout surprise solution to the mystery of Boogie's fate awaits on the very last page of this bittersweet tale (sure to provoke comparisons with Updike's Toward the End of Time), which, while it may not be Richler's best, is a mordant addition to his work.