on February 29, 2012
Mordecai Richler's Cocksure is an amusing and fast-paced satirical novel that challenges - nay, skewers -political correctness; cheers for that. However, though it is a decent read, it doesn't quite come off and isn't as fulfilling as the writer's previous work, The Incomparable Atuk, a lesser-known gem in Richler's ground-breaking repertoire. (By the by, the reason Atuk is less known probably has to do with its wonderful political incorrectness. Or, as Richler once said, "Satirical novels are probably least seriously treated in Canada because... in Canada there's an insecure attitude about culture.... People feel that culture is a very serious thing, and a duty, and connotes earnestness... and haven't got enough confidence to realize that something funny may be of the highest seriousness... and people in England and the United States haven't got that problem.")
In any event, Cocksure revolves around Mortimer Griffin, a white-bread WASP from Caribou, Ontario who makes his mark in the London book trade. When an eccentric, self-obsessed Hollywood magnate named The Star Maker buys his publishing firm, Griffin is confronted by the fact he (Griffin) is not Jewish (many people think he is) and the impact this has on his career and personal life.
So, we've got a bit of a weak premise, especially for Richler, whose more serious efforts weave dozens of themes and characters together in a complex, erudite, and oh-so-satisfying mix. Regard, if you will, the literary pyrotechnics of Solomon Gursky Was Here, the profoundly good storytelling within Joshua Then And Now, or even the more conventional delivery and ba-dump tshewww! comedy of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. And we all know, or should, about the subtle intricacy and tragicomedy of Barney's Version.
Humour helps Cocksure along - the bit about Griffin analyzing why he thinks about hockey legend Gordie Howe when making love to his wife is priceless - but some of the jokes don't work. One does get the impression, however, the story must have been fun to write. The dialogue is good; Richler had that ear for vernacular. He never needed to describe the colour of the sofa or what was happening in the background; he just provided authentic and sustaining speech. And Cocksure's characters are quite funny: the "ageless" Star Maker, for example, and Polly, who pretends she's living in a movie, with scene cuts at all the dramatic spots.
It's interesting to note that well into the twenty-first century, Mordecai Richler's writing still pushes the envelope. He wrote Cocksure in 1968. Sure, it's a bit ribald in places (the title being the clue), but that was the Zeitgeist, wun'nit? Still, the book was judged too risqué for some and was banned by WH Smith in the UK and by bookstores in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. We've come a long way, and we have writers like Richler to thank. In a CBC interview about Cocksure, Richler said, "I guess it's a rather vile book. It's really a novel of disgust. It's meant to create discomfort especially among liberals who are so insufferably smug and self-satisfied about being moderately good."
Cocksure is a decent read, but shouldn't be anyone's first Richler experience. I would wager you've got to "get to know him" elsewhere before you can appreciate this idiosyncratic, mocking little yarn. Cocksure might not achieve typical Richlerian lift-off, but it is fun; 4-stars fun.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World