Wiseman’s Wager

18 December 2014

Wiseman’s Wager
by Dave Margoshes
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-601-3

Winter’s an especially wonderful time to settle in with a thick and thought-provoking novel, and Coteau Books provides one that fits the bill nicely. Wiseman’s Wager is by the prolific and award-winning Dave Margoshes, who has been entertaining readers with his novels, short story collections, poetry, and nonfiction (a biography of Tommy Douglas) for decades.

The Saskatchewan-based writer has now spun a 382-page tale about two Jewish-Canadian brothers, both in their 80s, and their often tumultuous lives. There’s a gun, and prison time. There are multiple marriages, Yiddish, and the Communist Party. There are counselling sessions with a desirable female psychologist, and there’s a wife in a 12-year coma. This dialogue-driven novel is less about plot, however, and more about the relationship between the brothers-and the family they’ve lost-and how memory kicks in and out, seemingly of its own volition, like a weak signal on an ancient radio.

Zan, the intellectual protagonist, wrote a novel (“The Wise Men of Chelm”) that was a failure when published in 1932, but re-released 30 years later to great acclaim. Throughout the story feisty Zan mourns his inability to produce another novel, and he discusses this matter, plus his atheism-he is a “not-Jewish Jew”-the many woman who’ve been important to him, his childhood and family, and his work with the Communist Party: “… an endless cycle of leafleting, picketing, organizing, not that he was any good at that” with his psychologist, Zelda. He also frequently recollects his sessions with a previous psychologist, Jack-whom he began seeing after a breakdown-and compares the health professionals’ differing methodologies.

These therapy sessions, plus the conversation “Duets” with his brother (Abe, who has a tailor shop), and Zan’s journal entries, are the devices that facilitate an intimate look into the unusual life and times of Zan Wiseman. Those familiar with Margoshes’ fiction will recognize these literary trademarks: a strong voice; superb writing laced with similes that reveal the writer’s poetic sensibilities; and funny, opinionated, politically Left-leaning characters of Jewish descent.

During Zan’s first session with Zelda, he describes his relationship with Abe: “I talk, he talks, is anybody listening? We’re like two freight trains roaring down the track toward each other in the middle of the night, lights blinking, whistles moaning … But it’s okay, [we’re] on parallel tracks.” And indeed they are, for all their “huffing and puffing,” the pair gently and fondly tease each other as they attempt to sort out their long lives, together and apart.

Near the book’s beginning, Zan recalls catching his reflection in a window in Las Vegas, where he’d been living with his wife, Myrna: “ … bent, shuffling, white-haired, sallow-faced, slightly shabby clothes hanging off him scarecrow fashion”. Near the end, when he’s well into writing another novel, he sees a reflected image of Abe and himself: “…both bent, shrunken, limping along in a comic caricature of dance-nothing freakish about that.”

This book, like a life, comes satisfyingly full circle, and Zan accepts his lot with grace.


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