O Canada! Its greatness reveals itself in strange ways, to native and foreigner alike. Smug about our monumental myths and misdeeds, we Americans have a kind of permanent squint when it comes to our northern neighbor what do they do up there, anyway? Isn't Canada just a big, quirky, spread-out, less-intense version of the U.S.A., with funny accents and French people? Isn't it all, well, vaguely sleepy-making, somehow? Do we really have to pay attention?
Yes, insists Mordecai Richler, in his large, sprawling new novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here. This is a book that wants mightily to be some kind of Great Canadian Novel and that attempts, in the process, to convince us that the category need not be a minor sub-genre like, say, Great North Dakota Wheat-Farming Narratives. A big Canadian book's greatness, Richler seems to be saying, may be of a piece with the greatness of the land, and both may weigh in on the scale of world culture.
And indeed, the size and scope of Solomon Gursky derive from a breadth of zesty detail and an unruliness of style that have nothing to do with clichés about wheat farming. This is a multigenerational story within a story, full of cross-references and skips in time: The subject is the Gurskys, a family of very rich Canadian Jews descended from a remarkable progenitor, Ephraim, who came to the New World in 1846 with the doomed Franklin Expedition, in search of the Northwest Passage. The Gurskys' story is being researched by one Moses Berger, a rumpled, sozzled satyr of an academic with more than one connection to the family.
Not only has Moses lived with one of the Gursky girls but his father, L.B., a failed man of Canadian letters, was ghostwriter to Mr. Bernard Gursky, an SOB of a former bootlegger who went legit and built the family's fortune on the bottling of booze. Moses Berger's particular obsession is Bernard's lost brother Solomon, killed in an airplane explosion that Bernard may have engineered. Solomon, it seems, was a kind of Historical Individual, who may have participated in Mao's Long March, the raid on Entebbe, etc.
This is a book full of wonderful particulars; it is also the shaggiest of dogs. One roots for Richler like crazy. He is a wizard of a writer, whether it comes to dialogue or descriptive passages, and the range of his knowledge about all things Canadian not to mention 19th-century shipping, 20th-century urban culture (with particular reference to bars), Judaica, show biz, literary politics, and Inuit folkways is nothing short of dazzling. A chapter on Ephraim Gursky's adventures as a teenage coal miner in the early 1800s is simply breathtaking. But the piling up of sparkling particulars and the endless weaving and reweaving of plot and characters ultimately prove exhausting.
Richler is a clever writer who seems to dislike most of his characters. This, finally, robs the book of heart: A novel, like a marriage, must run on more than wit. Also, there is such a dispirited quality to the book's main observer, and to many of his observations about Canada, that the discouragement somehow redounds upon the enterprise itself. At one point Berger, seated in yet another provincial tavern, spies three ''sodden Micmacs, seated at the bar watching a wrestling match on TV.'' This is meant as a terrible epiphany, a cultural tombstone for a nation in a single glance. Somehow, Canada deserves better.