Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mordecai Richler's Cocksure

Hard to believe this pervasively nasty short novel was published just three years before St. Urbain’s Horseman. It seems to have served the author as a purgative for the recent (1968) sins – newly, bureaucratically entrenched – flowering like psychedelic sun blisters throughout journalism, the movie industry, literary magazines, education, and (broadly) civic society. It’s not hard to believe, however, that Cocksure would have, today, been dead in the water during a first editorial pass if its author submitted it under a pseudonym.

Values are inverted, not in a simple reversal, but as sarcastic, scabrous commentary on the inanities of the ‘free’ society, so that egalitarianism, bizarre and plotted ‘gotcha’ racial accusations, bizarre child-rearing practises, sexual attitudes, and ideologically created and technologically dumbed-down movie images conjoin with criminality and moral bankruptcy to squash ‘square’ social norms. But Richler, an across-the-board equal-opportunity satirist, lampoons, also, prigs and tight-asses, the cuckold as well as the bull.

“ ‘God damn it, Miss Ryerson, you can’t go around blowing school kids. It isn’t done.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Miss Ryerson said evenly, ‘take the Lord’s name in vain in my presence.’
‘Are you dead set against blowing, Mortimer?’
‘I wouldn’t know how to answer that, Miss Ryerson. We’ve never discussed, well, sex– ‘
Put out that cigarette immediately.’
‘Yes.’ ”

Shocking, yes. Offensive, certainly. But it’s in reaction to the toothless, whimsical literature that passes for satire, then and—as it turns out—now. To paraphrase Robert Altman on the TV version of MASH: the updated take wasn’t funny (compared to his original vision) because the stinger was pulled out; the show didn’t earn its laughs.

That this novel came out during the peak of the counter-culture shows Richler’s bravery. (One idiotic blurb, on its original Bantam Book cover, praised its “anti-establishment” stance.) And it’s fun, a great exercise, to draw parallels between political positions then and now. The names of movements and causes change, but the attitudes just circle out and back.

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