THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES LAPINSKY by Karen X. Tulchinsky (Polestar), 495 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
karen X. tulchinsky is a writer whose work I've always wanted to like. The Toronto-born, Vancouver-based author is honest, she can be funny and her first two novels were about things that move me - like fighting AIDS and living queer. But her fiction felt flat or self-indulgent. The Five Books Of Moses Lapinsky takes Tulchinsky to a new level. She steps into the past - and sometimes that of her own family - to track the career of middleweight boxer Sonny "The Charger" Lapinsky.
Sonny's fierce drive and talent and the wiliness of his manager take him to the world championship - but at a cost. As told by Sonny's son Moses, now a gay history professor, the story flashes back and forward through the Lapinsky family's history, from a Russian shtetl to 30s Toronto and the riots at Christie Pits through the second world war and the opening of what reads like a fictionalized Honest Ed's. All really interesting for T.O. history geeks - Tulchinsky obviously did tons of time in the archives.
There's an emotional hit, too. Sonny and his father, Yacov, are racked with guilt for having failed their brothers; these traumas both divide and bind them. And Tulchinsky's graphic evocation of the terror of Dieppe is devastatingly effective.
But the experience of the faygeleh brother Lenny is the most heartbreaking. Tulchinsky has begun an important exploration of what it was like to be gay in the 1940s. This is new ground, sensitively broken.
The book suffers from a narrative glitch at the end, when the story goes back to the Russian pogroms. We already know the key piece of information that this episode is supposed to give us, and Tulchinsky's desire to make her historical point with dramatic force gets in the way of the emotional arc of the personal story.
Which is ironic, since it's precisely because she goes back to the past for this book that she's able to deepen her craft.
Tulchinsky reads as part of the Books And Bagels series at the JCC on Sunday (September 21). See Readings, page 75.