Almost Famous…Not Really! (S)

Many of you will remember Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 2000 film, “Almost Famous,” starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, and Frances McDormand, among others. The film tells the tale of a teenage journalist writing for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. It is a wonderful coming of age story using, as a backdrop, the rock music scene of the 70s. This story, however, is about another teenage boy, and his own brush with fame…Not really! In this version though, the “fame” is by association with a name: Mine, Irwin Shubert.

It was the first week of September 1966 and I was getting my act together, trying to get out the door and walk the short distance to my friend’s house where I would meet up with another friend and then the three of us would walk the short distance to yet another friend’s house. The four of us would then walk the last mile or so to begin our junior year of high school. We had been doing this every morning since we started at Sir Winston Churchill High School two years ago and would continue to do so for the final two years. Yes, back in the day in Canada there were only four years of high school…deal with it! We were all 15 at the time, two of us would turn 16 before the end of the year, the other two at the beginning of the following year.

High school was a challenge for me academically (it wasn’t until much later in life that I hit my academic stride), as I was far more interested in sports and having a good time than I was with anything to do with school or learning, for that matter. I did manage to muddle my way through it, but it wasn’t easy. So, 10th grade started out like all the others, and in a few weeks, I was behind in all my classes, especially English, as back then reading was just not my thing. My brush with “fame” came a few weeks after the term started. My English teacher had assigned us a book to read: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). The novel was written by Mordecai Richler, a prominent Montreal writer and cultural critic. We were given two weeks to read the novel, after which there would be class discussion and an essay to write…of course! The day discussions were to begin, I sheepishly made my way to class, having just cracked the cover the night before, nowhere close to being finished, let alone ready to discuss anything. As soon as I walked into the classroom, I knew something was wrong. Every single student in the room, some of them close friends of mine, simply stopped what they were doing and stared at me. Did they somehow know I hadn’t read it, or had I developed a huge zit on my face that I didn’t know about. This went on for what I thought was an uncomfortable amount of time before the teacher arrived and told us to take our seats. One of my friends, who sat next to me, grabbed my arm, and whispered: “You’re in this book!” I thought he had lost his mind. “What do you mean, I’m in the book?” It was then that he realized that I probably hadn’t read it yet, so he blurted out: “Your name. You are a character in the book. Irwin Shubert,” as he furiously rifled through the pages to show me; “Here, see, Irwin Shubert, and you’re a bit of a prick.”

How was this possible? I did not know this author, hadn’t even heard his name before the teacher handed out the book. Oh, and the teacher, he had this smirk on his face, which told me two things: He knew I had not completed the book, and he bloody well knew my name was in it, but for some reason he kept that little tidbit to himself! And I, according to my friend, was the prick! Since the discussion that day was mostly on background for the book and the author, my “name” didn’t come up, other than the teacher calling on me, which was met with a cacophony of tittering from the assembled. I wanted to die. The end of the class could not come soon enough, and when the bell finally rang, I bolted out of there as quickly as I could, because I sure as hell knew what was coming, and I needed some time on my own to think about what just happened. I needed to grill my parents for information, because I knew deep down that sooner or later, I was going to be interrogated by my peers, wanting to know the scoop.

You can imagine the look on my face after revealing what happened in class to my mom and dad, only to have them tell me that they hadn’t read the book and had no idea that my name was in it! “What?” I yelled. “How could you not know there is a book with a character named after me? This has got to be the worst day of my life.” Yup, teen drama and angst were alive and well in the 60s! They, of course, knew the writer and his “story,” the Montreal Jewish community being fairly close-knit back in the day, but they had simply not read the book. After I had calmed down to about a level three hurricane, my mom asked me what the character was like; and you thought that my day couldn’t get any worse…So, I mumbled what my friend had told me: “He’s a prick!” Grounded.

It took a little while, but this is what I found out. Richler’s parents (he was five years younger than my dad) and my grandparents (my father’s parents) both had small vacation cottages north of Montreal that were next to each other. Although my dad and Richler’s paths never crossed back in the early 40s, our last name – Shubert – would have been known by them and, as it turns out, rummaging around in the back of young Richler’s mind when looking for character names for his fourth novel. Since I was born in 1950, only nine years before the book was published, there is no way that he could have known that there was a little snot-nosed kid running around Montreal with the same name as his character. He apparently chose the last name because of a distant cousin of ours who was slightly “left of center, politically that is,” and, as the story goes, a bit of a prick. You have to love the symmetry! How he settled on Irwin as a first name is anyone’s guess.

Like my dad before him, Richler went to Baron Byng High School, which was opened by then Governor General of Canada, Julian Byng in 1921, and was attended largely by Montreal’s working-class Jewish population. It was located on Saint Urbain Street, which would eventually be the backdrop for Richler’s 1971 novel St. Urbain’s Horsemen, as well as the leitmotif for most of his books. Other noteworthy alums included: A.M. Klein (poet, journalist, novelist), Irving Layton (the “tell it like it is” poet), and William Shatner!

Several weeks after these events, my parents and my brother and me were out for dinner at what was then considered one of Montreal’s finer dining establishments, Moishe’s Steakhouse on the famous St. Laurent Blvd. As soon as we were seated, my mother leaned over to me and surreptitiously pointed her finger at a gentleman seated at another table just to the left of us and whispered in my ear: “Do you know who that is?” I had no clue. She said: “That’s Mordecai Richler!” As I was trying to crawl under the table, she pulled me up and said: “You should go over and introduce yourself and tell him you just read his book that you’re a character in.” My own mother! We ate our dinner, mostly in silence, and I’m not sure what came over me, but somehow, I summoned up the courage to do exactly what my mother said I should do. I sidled over to his table, cleared my throat like they do in the movies to get somebody’s attention, and blurted out: “Hi Mr. Richler, my name is Irwin Shubert, and I’m a character in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Let’s just say that his reaction to this proclamation was less than enthusiastic, as he mumbled something to the effect of: “Oh, that’s nice,” and returned his attention to the others at his table. I was mortified and slunk back to my table. My mother was wise enough not to ask me how it went. I think she knew by the look on my face, but she glanced back over at Richler’s table and then said: “Maybe he was so abrupt because the woman he’s sitting beside is not his wife!”

Wait. It gets better! In 1974, eight years after reading the book (yes, I did finally read it, I mean I was in it!) it was made into a movie directed by Ted Kotcheff and staring Richard Dreyfuss as the infamous Duddy Kravitz. I was stoked. Who was playing me in the movie? Would he be the same character as he was in the book…you know, a prick? I went to see the movie with some friends, and when the first scene with my character popped up on the screen, we all sat there with our mouths hanging open in disbelief. There, on the big screen, looking larger than life, was Irwin Shubert being portrayed by Allan Migicovsky (now Allan Kolman), a guy that we all went to high school with! He was a year ahead of us grade-wise, but there were occasions when we all hung out together. Can you imagine the look on his face when his agent told him that he had a part in a movie playing Irwin Shubert?

The coda to this story, oddly enough, centers around another of Richler’s books, Barney’s Version (1997). While it has nothing to do with my name or the story above, it is, in a very bizarre way, another instance of the author’s writing (this time his use of a plot device, not a character), bringing back a rather vivid memory from my past. I was in my late twenties (1977-78), working and spending as much time as I could in the summer months escaping the city for the Laurentian Mountains, about an hour north of Montreal. I had this favorite spot, Lac Chat (Cat Lake), that was idyllic for its lush scenery and the fact that they did not allow any motorized boats on the water. As soon as I would get there late on Friday afternoon, I would rush over to the watercraft rental place, grab a canoe and a paddle, head to my camp site, pitch my tent, cook my dinner, and bed down for the night. Bright and early the next morning, I loaded up the canoe with my supplies for the day and shoved off onto the pristine and crystal clear water. I spent the morning getting my exercise paddling along the lake, which was fairly large, then I would drift out to the middle, have some lunch, smoke a joint (it was the 70s!), and lie down in the bottom of the canoe listening to nature! Except for this one day.

It was a blistering hot day, and I was, as per usual, floating around the center of the lake in sublime quietness, until I heard a motorboat on a lake that didn’t allow motorboats! My first thought was: “Wow, this dope is stronger than I thought!” I pulled myself up to have a look, and sure enough there was a motorized boat pulling what looked like a barge full of hay out to the far end of the lake, and the two people in the boat were both waving frantically at me. So, I did what any stoned individual would do; I lay back down in the canoe and ignored them. Moments later, I heard this whooshing noise, and when I sat up and looked out again, I could see that the men in the boat had just set the bales of hay on fire, and the now assembled crowd on the shore were all frantically waving at me to come to shore. Just then, I heard this very loud rumble, and this rather large plane flew right over my head a little too close for comfort, so I double-timed it to the shore to the applause of the assembled crowd. As it turns out, it was a demonstration for a brand new firefighting aircraft that had these huge doors on the bottom of the fuselage which, when the plane skimmed the water, would open swallowing up hundreds of gallons of water, to be later dumped on the burning hay bales. The reason they were all yelling at me: I was in the direct path of the plane!

Just over twenty years later, I was reading Richler’s new book, Barney’s Version, which in many ways can be considered a “culmination” novel; as it incorporates many of the character’s from his previous novels. The events of this story lead up to someone being murdered near a lake, but the body isn’t found until many years later, and the police are baffled as to how a dead person had managed to end up several miles away from the place where he died. After I read this, my palms began sweating…” Nah, this can’t be what happened.” Sure enough, many pages later, the police surmised that the body had somehow ended up in the middle of the lake, where it was then scooped up by a firefighting plane and summarily deposited in the woods where there had been a fire the same year the man went missing. I phoned everyone I knew!

Los Angeles 2023

4 thoughts on “Almost Famous…Not Really! (S)

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