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reviewed by Michael Barnholden
Multi-generational family history seems to be the preferred subject of the current novel. The family is the one thing we all know, we all share, we all live with, like it or not. Unhappy or not, families are all alike in their basic construct: mother, father, present or absent as the case may be, and children, repeat back to the beginning of time, and add in the variables of local conditions and you have the basis of the modern novel, or should that be memoir? While our biology betrays us, our sociology can enlighten us. The term parent is gender neutral and implies a certain overlap of nature and nurture.
However, this is where the genre gets confusing and confused. In this case, Moses Lapinsky is writing his memoir which is necessarily the memoir of his family, in this case dominated by the alpha male Sonny “the Charger” Lapinsky. Anyone hear echoes of the Italian Stallion? Of course, local conditions mirror world events. In Toronto an immigrant ghetto is created around Spadina and Bloor and there is of course a white is right backlash that culminates in the anti-Semitic riot that has become known as The Christie Pits riot.
In The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, Karen X. Tulchinsky has created a faithful portrait of a neighbourhood and a culture through her wide ranging research. The cost of a dozen eggs in depression era Toronto? It’s in there. A sketch of the radical left (is that Emma Goldmann on the streetcar?) neatly juxtaposed with a nascent queer intelligentsia. The pristine white beaches, public but still just out of reach for the poor. Also of course boxing, the sweet science of rage controlled, but also perverted by gamblers against a backdrop of world war that defies understanding.
Finally we have our subject, evil–evil in the family and evil in the universal human family, with the metaphor of boxing extended back into the family, the endless sparring, round after round of dancing getting ready to unload the knockout punch, the battle for control that moves into the ring, the squared circle with two near men stripped of all, including their essential humanity. The object of the “sport” after all is to knock the other man unconscious. For all intents and purposes, a simulated killing. The ultimate defeat, although occasionally faked.
I still remember vividly one summer night in the early sixties standing out at the end of the farm yard on a little rise in southern Saskatchewan with my father the boxer, frantically trying to find a few minutes of static free radio to listen to then Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston fight “the battle of the century”. It was over in mere moments, unlike World War II, which seems to have never really ended, nor should it, particularly in literature. A phantom punch.
Tulchinsky has very neatly assembled, and I mean that in the best possible way, a very cinematic (her writing has always been that) epic.
One family, one world, one book, one punch.
This review first appeared in The Rain Review of Books (Vol.2, Issue 3 in 2004).