Winner of the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour
Winner of Canada Reads 2011
The story behind The Best Laid Plans and its publication is a story in and of itself which I am sure most readers are familiar with by now. After countless rejections from publishers and agents, Terry Fallis recorded a podcast of his new novel and then self-published it through iUniverse. After winning the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, beating out serious heavyweights Douglas Coupland and Will Ferguson, the book was published by one of Canada’s most storied houses, McClelland and Stewart. This book combines two of my favorite things, literature and politics. I have read a number of winners of the Leacock Award in the past and have been disappointed more often than not; The Best Laid Plans is, without a doubt, one of the funniest books I have ever read. A political thriller in the truest sense of the term: this novel is eyes-deep in the political machinations of Ottawa with a twist and turn around every corner. With hilarious narration and page after page of memorable comedy, The Best Laid Plans is going to be a contender that I can see making it right to the final round of Canada Reads this year.
I think the magic in this book is that it both captures the country’s cynicism towards politics and delves into the reasons behind that cynicism in a very funny way. As the plot unfolds, we see the cantankerous Angus McLintock unexpected and unwanted election to the House of Commons and his direct march against the political grain. The character development is absolutely incredible and the subplots are tied in so seamlessly that we are instantly drawn into this mosaic. Something that has to be mentioned about this book is that behind the humour, the unforgettable cast, the epic chess battles, and the harrowing hovercraft trip rests a very serious message: the future of our nation and many of the cornerstones of our society are being run by people with short-sighted and self-serving agendas. Our public servants have lost the ability the put the nations long-term interests ahead of winning the next election, ahead of their polling numbers, and ahead of their own careers. Had this novel been written in a dramatic style, it would be a complete snore, despite the importance of the central themes. This is humour at its best.
An exposé on the ridiculous behemoth that our democracy has become, The Best Laid Plans should be required reading for all MPs and MLAs/MPPs/MHAs at the beginning of each session. Looking beyond the contents of the novel, I think the publication story behind this book should serve as a lesson on the culture of elitism that has emerged amongst many Canadian publishers. It seems that unless you are either a university English professor or a recent graduate from an MFA program (and many people know how I feel about MFA programs and the damage they are doing to the North American literary scene) the deck is stacked against you in getting that first book published. What changed about The Best Laid Plans after it won the Leacock Medal? Nothing, except the publishing community realized what a grievous error it had made.
Canadians love their arts, their sports, and their politics. I think that the final two books standing in the battle for the Canada Reads crown will be this title and The Bone Cage. Ultimately I think The Bone Cage will win because I believe it will resonate with more people and humour generally has a rough go on this show. In terms of “which is a better book”, they both get 5 stars in my mind. As he opened his endless parade of rejection letters, I wonder what Terry Fallis would have thought if someone told him he would win one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Canada and then be on Canada Reads a few short years later with the sequel, The High Road, coming out in 2010.
Winner of the 1997 Giller Prize
Winner of the 1998 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour
Winner of the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean region)
Winner of the 1998 QSpell Award
Winner of the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award
Shortlisted for 1997 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2004
Well, here it is, my first review on the new Blog! It has been at least 8 months since I had sat down to read a “real” book. I stood looking at my book case and decided that it was time to rekindle my love of CanLit. I had read recently that a film adaptation of Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler staring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman was due to be released this summer; so remembering this, then after reading the inside flap, and seeing the original “1997 Winner: The Giller Prize” sticker on the cover of my first edition copy I decided to crack this volume open and get sucked into the lives of another one of Richler’s anti-epics.
Sitting my computer right now I feel I would not be doing this book justice unless I was sipping on a snifter of cognac while putting down my thoughts. One of this first things that struck me about this book was that it is written in the first person, Richler’s first novel to use this point-of-view. Barney Panofsky is a hot tempered, wickedly witted, alcoholic, caring, shrewdly intelligent, and complicated wretch of an old man. It is very hard to avoid seeing autobiographical elements in fiction, especially first-person fiction, and even more so in the writings of Mr. Richler, and of course this book is no different. Barney, like Richler himself, is nearing the end of his life (Richler died 4 years after the publication of this, his last, novel), his health is failing, he has a love of Montecristo cigars and Macallan Scotch, and internally struggles with what it means to be a post-Holocaust Jew, if anything.
Barney’s Version, in the way it is written and in the themes that emerge, is very similar to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (I actually re-watched the film adaptation just to reaffirm my opinion). The story is told through flashbacks and interconnected vignettes. The book is written as though it is Barney Panofsky’s memoirs with his son Mike adding footnotes and penning an afterword to wrap the story up. There are multiple climaxes in the story, 4 in my opinion, one at the end of each marriage and then one at the end of the book. Barney really is a pathetic man but he has his redeeming qualities. The 417 pages contained in this novel take you on a roller coaster of feelings towards him, one minute you will despise this drunk wife-beater but 20 pages later you adore his dry wicked charm as he woos his next wife. Barney’s Version is about memory; and what happens to a man when his memories outweigh his future and then what that man becomes when those memories fade.
In the final chapter with one sentence Mike Panofsky describes his father with pinpoint accuracy; “Before his brain began to shrink, Barney Panofsky clung to two cherished beliefs: Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else” (417). I think that anyone would be very hard pressed to convince me that either of these two ideas are false. Through his incredible satire Richler has once again crafted a masterpiece on the human condition. When Barney is being tested by a psychiatrist for Alzheimer’s disease he gets agitated and lets him know that the great writers of world better understand what it means to be human than any doctor could. I agree. Richler’s final novel is a great and fitting end to a Canadian literary legend.