The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jacob (Jake) Hersh

Jacob (Jake) Hersh, a Canadian film and television director in his late thirties, living and working in London. He is “modishly ugly” and obsessed with the deterioration of his body and an exaggerated fear of death and disease. He is happily married and has three children. His guilt, induced in large measure by a stereotypical “Jewish mother” and by his realization that, as a Canadian, he escaped the Holocaust and other miseries of World War II, causes him to become involved, against his better judgment, with Harry Stein. Guilt and the need for a hero motivate his fascination with his cousin, Joey, whom he imagines to be the Jewish avenger, St. Urbain’s Horseman, named for the main street of the Jewish immigrant neighborhood in which Jake grew up. In London, Jake is often mistaken for Joey or asked to repay money that Joey has borrowed or stolen, including the life savings of Ruthy Flam, whom Joey had promised to marry. Pressured by Ruthy and her fiancé, Harry Stein, Jake settles Joey’s debts and takes Joey’s saddle and rifle, which he keeps in his attic studio. Jake returns from his father’s funeral in Montreal to find Harry and a German girl he has picked up in a coffee bar using his home for an uninhibited sexual encounter. Incensed that they have used Joey’s saddle as a prop and offended by the woman’s nationality, Jake throws her out. Picked up by the police naked and obviously under the influence of drugs, the woman charges both Harry and Jake with rape. Jake is acquitted of all but the most minor of the charges and fined.

Joseph (Joey) Hersh

Joseph (Joey) Hersh, who is seen only through the memories and stories of other characters. He is the handsome, daring black sheep of the Hersh family. He is admired by the younger family members for his looks, his varied career as a professional baseball player and a movie extra, and his success with women, but he is feared and mistrusted by the more conventional, older Hershes. There is much evidence that Joey is a con man and a thief, but his mother, Hanna, and cousin Jake continue to believe that he is a hero on the trail of...

(The entire section is 885 words.)