Morris Lurie (1938–2014) was a much-loved author of comic novels, short stories, essays, plays, and children’s books, and he was amazingly versatile. Many years ago I enjoyed reading The Twenty-Seventh Annual African Hippopotamus Race (1969) with The Offspring, but more recently I discovered his writing for adults: the tragic-comic novel Hergesheimer in the Present Tense (2014) focussing on the travails of a middle-aged man (see my review); and the poignant To Light Attained (2008), an autobiographical novel following his daughter’s suicide, described by Liam Davidson in his review “as a searing account of heartbreaking loss” (see my review). So I was interested to come across some of his early work, just recently re-issued by Melbourne publishers Hybrid.
This is part of the blurb from their website:
This ebook brings together two of Lurie’s novels, the comic Rappaport,  which focuses on a day in the life of a young Melbourne antique dealer and his immature friend, Friedlander, and Rappaport’s Revenge  where the characters, transplanted to London, are further chronicled. These are followed by several short stories: “Rappaport Lays an Egg”, “The Death of Rappaport”, “Dirty Friends”, “Rappaport Dragged Over the Coals,” “Rappaport Takes Lunch”, and “Rappaport and Friedlander Meet in Heaven”.
Lurie has been compared with acclaimed American Jewish writers such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen. Morris Lurie died on 8 October 2014. His unique voice will be sorely missed.
Rappaport brings us the world of St Kilda in the days before high-rise and trendy bars as it chronicles one day in the life of Rappaport, a middle-aged man who runs an ‘antique’-and-collectibles shop that’s a jumble of clutter and junk. He’s a hoarder:
The morning tastes bitterly of vanilla slices and jam and flaky pastry as Rappaport gets out of his car. His face is red on this morning in early Spring, at a few minutes past ten, full of breathing. ‘Good morning, Joe.’ It is Mrs Williams at her front door, as it is every morning. ‘Morning, Mrs W, how’s the wooden leg?’ Rappaport says. He says it mechanically and automatically, without thinking, but oh Mrs Williams is so obviously delighted, she seems to shine, that the weight of the morning lifts from Rappaport’s heart. ‘Oh, you are a one, Joe,’ she says, as Rappaport comes round to give her his usual smile and wink and two-fingered salute, and as he does so he drops his ring of twenty-eight keys in a rattling clump onto the footpath, cupboard keys, front-door keys, back-door keys, suitcase keys, the key to a typewriter which he long ago sold, the key to a house he no longer lives in, toy keys, car keys, duplicates, keys for locks long lost but close to his heart, others, with the trams rattling past in the street.
Lurie, Morris. Rappaport Compleat (Kindle Locations 36-45). Hybrid Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Fatally, he’s also an impulse buyer, as the reader discovers when he bids at auction for a ridiculously large sideboard, too big to bring into the shop. This and other failures are most poignantly shown when he bumps into a boy who used to bully him at school – and Whitey has turned out to be an architect while Rappaport isn’t a doctor like his brother, a lawyer, a professional man, he’s a nothing, a bum.
What he has, however, is resilience:
… he feels his parcel under his arm and whips it out and transfers it to his other, with a sudden air of great business, forgetting Whitey and forgetting his father, and he strides down the street like a member of the Stock Exchange, a magnate, a king. By the time he gets to within ten paces of his shop, he has completely forgotten Whitey. There is no such architect. There is only a Whitey who is fourteen years old, fifteen, a flicker of wet towels, a cigarette smoker behind the bike sheds, a liar, a card player, a minor thief. And that Whitey, when he grows up, will be a failure, a drinker, a tram conductor (if he’s lucky) or maybe just a shoddy bank clerk. And he wipes Whitey completely from his mind. (Loc 500)
Like the best of comic duos, Rappaport has an exasperating mate called Friedlander. They have complementary obsessions: Rappaport collects magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, Paris Match, Town, Sports Illustrated, Punch, Time, the New Yorker, McCalls, The Ladies Home Journal, Pix, Look, and Life, but he draws the line at Home Beautiful, House and Garden, Home, and Your Garden). Friedlander collects records:
He dives for the window of Thomas’ record shop, on the corner, almost getting run down by a car, making for it like a nail to a magnet, all else forgotten. Records! And how many times has he come out of this shop with a stack of them under his arm, and there wasn’t a tram, a bus or a cab that could take him home fast enough so he could put them on his stereo? A hundred times? Friedlander buys records the way most people buy bread.
He makes straight for the window and the display of records there, his expert eye darting from cover to cover, summing them up in fractions of seconds, five centuries of western music in less than a minute. And why not? Friedlander knows this shop like the back of his hand, every record, every cover, and he can spot a new one at once. Ah, but there’s nothing new, he’s seen them all, and he smiles to himself, and thinks, Good, what do I want records for, I’m going to Russia, and he resolves, this minute, to save as hard as he can, every penny counts, and then he spots a Sonny Rollins record and he gasps.
Sonny Rollins! And he is already running for the door.
He forgets, in a flash, the hundred and ninety-seven records which he owns, all of them suddenly outdated, useless, and there exists only this new Sonny Rollins, without which he can’t live another minute. ( Locs 749-760).
On this day, Friedlander decides on impulse to visit Russia. (This is, remember, when the Cold War was rather hot after the Cuban Missile Crisis). But since he’s waffled on so often about other travel plans, no one is impressed; they think this dream will come to nothing too and the dialogue crackles with deflating mockery…
It’s not a novel where much happens, (which makes it an excellent choice for desultory reading in doctor’s waiting rooms and train journeys) but Lurie is a master of the striking metaphor:
‘Rappie!’ bellows a voice amidst a jingle of falling pennies, and Rappaport’s face of politeness and efficiency subsides like a bad cake. ‘Where’ve you been?’ the voice bellows. (Loc 75).
It’s that power of observation, on show here in this first novel, which established Lurie as one of our most impressive authors.
Author: Morris Lurie
Title: Rappaport (Book 1 of Rappaport Compleat)
Publisher: Hybrid Publishing, 2014
ASN: B00OHWGDEY SKU: 9781742984506
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle
Available only as an eBook, see details at Hybrid.