The premise is as ingenious as it is simple. It's 11ish pm. A divorced Jewish property manager named Levin turns his car into a downtown Montreal alleyway, taking a shortcut so he can get home as fast as possible to bed the woman he's just picked up at a local bar. His car is three quarters through the alleyway when a taxi driven by a Romanian immigrant (Pelzic by name) pulls in to the laneway headed in the opposite direction. What ensues is a high-noon stand-off, two equally angry, equally self-righteous stubborns, both perenially unable to catch a break from life, who have decided to make this confrontation their last stand. Each stays in his respective bubble not budging and watching from afar (except for the odd "Fock you!") the comings and goings in the other person's vehicle. They include a drunken millionaire wanting to be taken home and a fourteen year old girl looking for spare change.
It's an allegory of prejudice and miscommunication in a world that's gone crazy, in other words, a world of shmucks (a particular joy is reading Levin's explications on the nuances of the Yiddish term.) The beauty of this story is that neither Levin nor Pelzic seems to realize how he's one of them, a shmuck that is.
I had to track this short novel (128 pages) down on the internet and managed to snag a reasonably priced copy from Abebooks. A writer friend had recommended it as a work that he found had stood up surprisingly well over time. Extremely well, I say. It's absolutely hilarious and has a sad poignancy and an underlying seriousness that still resonates.
I have a vague memory of the time this book first came out in the early seventies. I was about seven or eight years old and Seymour Blicker lived around the corner in Hampstead on Gayton. I used to play with his kids on occasion at Gayton Park across the street, particularly the eldest son Jason, who you might know from his successful acting career. We never asked Jason about what his dad did for a living, though the word around the neighbourhood was that it wasn't a 'normal' living. Still, they lived in a nice house and the kids (four of them, Jason had a very pretty, very smart, older sister and twin younger brothers) seemed to have everything that the rest of us had who came from shmatta, legal or accounting families. When "Shmucks" came out I have a hazy recollection of an adult (it might or might not have been one of my parents) mentioning that what Mr. Blicker wrote was smut. I imagined something out of Penthouse Forum. Something akin to Roald Dahl's ribald naughtiness would be more accurate. Actually, the sex scenes and references in the novel which were deemed so outrageously crass and vulgar, often feel dated, even quaint, which tells you something about how far we've come.
One of the many pleasures of this book for me was how Levin's being harrassed by his tenants. At one point he decides to use his time in the car to answer their complaint-filled correspondences. (I got a particular chuckle out of how, in the absence of cellphones and Blackberries, each complaint was communicated to him and had to be answered by letter. By the end he's having enough of it, answering one formally-worded complaint in a dream by simply saying, "And perhaps you could do a little favour for me, Mr. Sanderson... perhaps you can go fuck yourself" - okay maybe you have to be in the property management game as long as I have to truly enjoy that response.)
The resolution is as simple and ingenious as the premise, and also as satisfying, leaving the reader with a sense of hope. I won't give it away, but I'll say one thing, both Pelzic and Levin finally win out in their own little way, and in the process each gains a glimmer of insight into himself. If there is a publisher out there listening, please re-issue this book! The hardcover I managed to obtain is already cracking at the seams.