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An 'Apprenticeship' In First-Generation Chutzpah

One night, when I was 11, my father came into my room and tossed a book on my bed. He said, "Read this if you want to know where I came from."

The book was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler, a novel about an ambitious teenager from Montreal's Jewish working class. Duddy is hellbent on making a name for himself. Early in the book, his elderly grandfather tells him, "A man without land is nobody." After discovering a secluded lake north of the city, 18-year-old Duddy becomes obsessed with owning it. Penniless, he sets about acquiring the land around the lake with the zeal of a missionary. He drives his father's taxi at night, sells toilet supplies and pinball machines to hotels, and makes outlandish bar mitzvah films with an alcoholic British director.

Duddy's ambition is unpolished and fearless. He embodies every stereotype of the Jewish immigrant kid, for better or worse. Duddy schemes, borrows and forges checks. He lies so blatantly and so often, people laugh him out of meetings. He barges into businesses and homes, demanding to be heard and financed. Duddy has no patience for the educated, and not the slightest concern for manners. When he is refused an appointment or a loan, he flies off the rails, cursing the hypocrisy of the wealthy, who preach the brotherhood of man but are disgusted by a young man on the make. By the end of the book, he has taken advantage of both his love interest and a crippled friend, all in the pursuit of his beloved land. Duddy Kravitz doesn't just burn his bridges; he blows them to smithereens.

Richler could have made Duddy Kravitz a despicable protagonist, but with skill and comedy he transforms him into a lovable anti-hero. He's an unrepentant little jerk, but you can't help admire the kid's sheer chutzpah.

My Dad often swore that reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz was like reading his own biography. The novel's concise, funny prose mythologizes the Jewish Montreal of the postwar era: smoked meat delicatessen sandwiches, gambling garment workers, and local gangsters like the Boy Wonder (who, my father swore, was based on a relative of ours). Like Duddy, my dad was a man on the make. Raised in the same neighborhood near St. Urbain Street, my father also worked at sweater factories and spent his summers waiting tables in the hotels of the Laurentian Mountains.

By contrast, I was born in Toronto, in the lap of upper middle class luxury. By throwing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz on my bed, my father wasn't just indulging in nostalgia for Montreal. He was giving me a tool to understand him better. Our comfort didn't just drop from the heavens like manna. My dad had worked dozens of crappy jobs to put himself through law school, to buy that BMW. He had the hunger, just like Duddy. I was the third generation. I'd lost the immigrant drive. The least I could do was appreciate it.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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David Sax