Barney Panofsky is an aging Jewish businessman from Montreal who’s made the bulk of his fortune producing schlock Canadian television programs. He decides to write a memoir relating his own version of events when an old acquaintance from his time spent in Paris as a young man publishes a book which features unflattering mentions about him. What’s clear from the beginning is that Barney is an unpleasant old coot who takes pride in offending people and their various sensibilities, and also that he has a faltering memory (he calls one of his sons in London when he needs help remembering the names of the seven dwarves), which makes him a delightfully unreliable narrator. We also quickly learn that Barney is a heavy drinker who enjoys his Macallan single malt scotch with plenty of cigars, morning, noon and night. The novel is divided into three parts which are ostensibly dedicated to his three former wives, and we eventually learn the details of how he came to be married to them and how the marriages have ended, although Barney’s storytelling is far from linear and tends to jump all over the place, so there are anecdotes aplenty. Barney may or may not have killed his best friend, the talented writer Bernard “Boogie” Moscovitch, who has disappeared without a trace, and he aims to redeem himself and come clean once and for all about the events which led to his arrest for that alleged murder, but as he progresses in his storytelling, his lapses in memory become more and more frequent until he can no longer be certain of what had taken place on that fateful day.
I must admit it took me a good 100 pages or so before I began to enjoy this book and very nearly decided to drop it because Barney jumps into a bunch of jumbled-up stories, naming places and individuals and incidents big and small and skipping through time willy-nilly from the very beginning, which made it hard to figure out what was going on. But as I progressed, I began to see that there was some kind of method in the madness and the story that does emerge is well-worth the initial confusion. All told, a great way to start the year with a masterful novel that doesn’t lack in originality. The book was a Christmas present from my dad and we’ve already agreed to go see the movie adaptation together, which is due out in cinemas on January 14th.