Duddel Kravitz is what you might call an "operator": a man with his hand in many money-making schemes, from selling pinball machines to filming bar mitzvahs. He has his eyes set on a pristine tract of land surrounding a lake in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, because as his grandfather tells him, "a man without land is nothing." He buys up the parcels of land, one by one, using his older girlfriend Yvette's name because he's still too young to buy property legally--somewhere, over the course of the book, between sixteen and twenty.
I picked up this book because it's set in Montreal, where I was about to spend a couple of days. Richler is well-known in Montreal, but his legacy is controversial because he was a longtime critic of the Quebec language policies that are designed to affirm the city's Francophone character. As an Anglophone Jew who grew up in Montreal's Mile End neighborhood (now, like the Lower East Side, a trendy neighborhood), Richler was highly attuned to the way that the language laws enshrined Quebecker Jews as Other. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is steeped in Jewish culture and mannerisms, like a Malamud novel or a Woody Allen film. It has the kind of self-deprecating humor that seems so characteristic of Jewish writing: observe how Duddy, having made friends with a goyische millionaire, can't understand why soliciting his new friend for the contract collecting scrap at his factories would be considered gauche, or that the millionaire has never heard of a Jewish criminal magnate known in Duddy's community as "the Boy Wonder."
The book is often wildly funny; at one point Duddy hires a blacklisted filmmaker to help him make his bar miztvah movies. The filmmaker insists on total artistic control, and the film ends up a cut-rate Un Chien Andalou:
NARRATOR: Today you are a man, Bernard son of Moses.
18. (Montage) Lightning. Close shot of Michelangelo's statue of David. Cartoon of a Thurber husband. African tribal dance. Close shot of a venereal disease warning in a public urinal.
Duddy's lust for money could, in the hands of a non-Jew or a less capable writer, make him seem like a walking stereotype. But Duddy's greed is counterbalanced by a boyish simplicity and a sensitivity for others that even he seems not aware of. When an epileptic he employs as a driver--a great, absurdly earnest character who considers Duddy the "Branch Rickey of epileptics" for giving him a chance--is paralyzed in an accident, he is crushed with guilt and lets his business empire go to ruin--at least temporarily. But these qualities are often in direct competition with his greed, and his obsessive need for the land. As his uncle writes him, "A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others." The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, for all its excellent humor, gets is pathos from the overriding question of what man Duddy will choose to be, and which of his two selves he'll murder.