Jake Hersh is the main character in the novel, and there is hardly a scene in which he does not appear. His memories and flashbacks to his younger self show a lively, confident, and irreverent person who seems capable of achieving anything he desires. He is seen as he wins his wife and begins to achieve success as a director. He has left provincial Montreal behind for sophisticated London to make a name for himself. In contrast, the Jake of the present seems to have lost his energy and appears to be aimless. He is living in an enforced suspension of time while awaiting the result of his trial. He is also estranged from his wife and his friend Luke, and as a result he must reevaluate his values and aims.
Harry Stein has no pretensions to success; he is doing his best to survive and to get some of his own back from those who are better off than he is. Harry is a grudge collector; he believes that everyone is exploiting him while he is doing the same. Nothing that Jake does for him, for example, satisfies him. The judge who sentences Harry calls him “a persistent public menace,” but Jake’s description of Harry as “a street accident” seems closer to the truth; Harry is a product of his environment more than a “menace” to it. His poverty and insignificance are mocked by the riches and freedom of an indulgent society.
Joey Hersh is not a product of society but a continual challenge to whatever limitations are set up against him and others. His style is bold, dashing, and provocative, while Harry’s is furtive and servile. The reader is never sure whether Joey is a criminal or a savior; Richler mixes in hints of illegal activities with suggestions of higher motives. There can be no doubt, however, that he represents the principle of freedom in the novel. In addition, he is a touchstone that enables the reader to judge characters by their support or denial of Joey. It is no accident that the most positive characters in the novel, Jake and Hanna, are Joey’s staunchest defenders.