Ottawa Jewish Bulletin Review - A Book of Great Worth
Ottawa Jewish Bulletin
Reviewed by: Rubin Friedman
I read A Book of Great Worth, a collection of short stories by American-born, Regina-based writer Dave Margoshes just after some short stories and novels by Don DeLillo. The contrast in style and content could not have been greater. DeLillo uses contemporary language and references to depict the surface of the world today, almost, it seems, as it is becoming the world of tomorrow. Beneath the smooth surface if the well-chosen words and the rhythms of modern speech lies a seeming reality of chaos, random chance and meaninglessness. While I enjoy the ride of reading fiction of this sort, I am biased in favour of Margoshes' short stories of a world that not longer exists: the secular Yiddish world of newspapers, union politics, petty gangsters and the entertainment business in New York and the northeast states. It's a background I am half-familiar with, having grown up the son of an immigrant tailor in Toronto from the late-1940s to the mid-60s, the tail end of an era when Yiddish-speaking men played clobyush and poker while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer or little shots of schnapps, and talking of politics and the latest scandals, in private homes, on weekends as picnics with their families, or in brief snatches at restaurants and cafes on Spadina Avenue or College Street.
Margoshes paints a loving portrait of New York's equivalent of this world. His stories never descend into sentimentalism, but this world's problems and negative aspects into proper context. Using his father or, as we later learn, a fictional character based on his father, he give us a series of related tales that centre on the ups and downs, generous gestures and foolish mistakes of a Yiddish newspaper reporter whose dream is to become a novelist. We are plunged into the midst of this world in the opening sentence of the first story, 'The Proposition,' when Margoshes writes, ''I did something stupid,' the rabbi told my father.' How the narrator's father, Harry Margoshes, known as Morgenstern, solves the rabbi's dilemma is amusing and Damon Runyanesque. We instantly get a feel for a man who is there to help his friends, but who is not a saint.
The stories do not unfold chronologically. Rather, they spiral into the moments when the author's avatar, the son of the journalist, is there to directly witness the interplay of human weakness and strength in the strivings of his parents in stories such as 'A Book of Great Worth' and 'The Family Circle.', Margoshes displays a wonderfully delicate touch in controlling the technique of narration, transitioning from objective third person narrator with insight into a character's thoughts, to reporter of his father's actions, to creator of dialogue, to direct witness. There is always an effort to understand and draw out the meaning of what is happening in the story and what it implies about the virtues and frailties of the characters. The tales are infused with a marvellous nostalgia, an affection for the past that has all but disappeared with the decline of the secular Yiddish world and its newspapers and radio stations. And yet, the stories also acknowledge the inevitability of the decline. Although Margoshes' father never became a novelist he wanted to be, the author, in his own explication of what he was about, concludes, 'Most importantly, I tried to honour my father. The best way to do that, I knew, was to get it right'. I believe he did get it right and highly recommend the book.