Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published in 1959, is a hilarious and rambunctious novel that gives little space to scenery or introspection.
It is the story of Duddy Kravitz, a smart-ass kid with ambition, a fast mouth, and little time for education. Duddy is from Montreal’s Jewish working class St. Urbain Street neighbourhood, where “the boys grew up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.”
Early on in the book, Duddy’s grandfather tells Duddy, “A man without land is nobody.’’ Duddy internalizes this, repeats the statement regularly (seven times throughout the book), and devotes his life to becoming a somebody.
He starts off as a teenager selling porn and pilfered hockey sticks to classmates. After high school, he works at a summer resort and, when home, he drives his dad’s taxi during off-hours. Then he begins shooting and selling bar mitzvah movies, showing popular films at summer camps, working as a middleman in the scrap metal racket, and he slowly buys up pieces of land around a hidden lake in the countryside. His dream is to one day build a massive resort on the land and get rich. Everything he does is to that end.
Duddy is an outsider, but this isn’t a story of someone who wants to be accepted by those on the inside; this is a story of a person who wants to be bigger than those on the inside, who wants to show them who’s boss. No matter how hard he hustles, though, he can never get ahead. For everything Duddy earns, he loses something bigger, and the reek of his bitterness permeates the book.
“You lousy, intelligent people! You lying sons-of-bitches with your books and your socialism and your sneers. You give me one long pain in the ass,” Duddy says after his uncle challenges him on his ambition. “…I’m going to own my own place one day. King of the castle, that’s me. And there won’t be any superior drecks there to laugh at me or run me off.”
Duddy is mesmerizing throughout the entirety of the book, but he isn’t a likeable character. He sells out friends, he turns on people, he hits his girlfriend, and he lies and cheats as a matter of course. He thinks he’s bigger than St. Urbain Street, and he’ll do anything to prove it. His uncle fears what Duddy is becoming.
“You’re two people,” he tells Duddy. “The scheming little bastard I saw so easily and the fine, intelligent boy underneath that your grandfather, bless him, saw. But you’re coming of age soon and you’ll have to choose. A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others.”
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz shows the process of Duddy murdering those others to become a man, and, at the end of it, he has to choose which version will be spared, the good man who loves his family, or the ambitious man who will climb over people to get what he wants.