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Jewish themes pervade new novel Halbman Steals Home
March 6, 2012 | Mike Cohen - Quebec Bureau ChiefcloseAuthor: Mike Cohen - Quebec Bureau Chief
Name: Mike Cohen
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MONTREAL – Noted Montreal Jewish writer B. Glen Rotchin has gained notice over the past few decades for an array of successful published fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews. He has won two Canadian Jewish Book Awards for co-editing poetry anthologies and was a finalist in 2005 for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.
Rotchin’s latest novel, Halbman Steals Home, is one that any Jew with a sense of humour won’t be able to put down. While the story is set deep in the Jewish suburbs of Montreal, the storyline is one that can be appreciated by any Jewish reader for the characters described could live just about anywhere.
Halbman Steals Home tells the fictitious story of Mort Halbman, a crotchety, divorced, 65-year-old garment manufacturer who laments losing the one true love of his life: the Montreal Expos. Now the dream home he built in the late 1960s in the Montreal suburb of Hampstead, where he lived for 25 years with his once-happy family, has burned down under mysterious circumstances and he finds himself the prime suspect in an arson investigation.
Rotchin winds the story up to include a now-Orthodox daughter who speaks to Halbman weekly, only because the Bible commands it. His estranged gay son, Jacob (whom he called Jackie after baseball player Jackie Robinson), has announced his impending nuptials and wants his father to participate in the rabbi-officiated same-sex ceremony. Then there is his ex-wife Mona and her insufferable boyfriend Gordon, Canada’s book reviewer extraordinaire.
Halbman seems compelled to continually return in his Jaguar to the burned-out remnants of his former home.
Jewish characters are the norm for Rotchin. His previous novel, The Rent Collector, tells the story of an Orthodox Jew named Gershon Stein who spends his days collecting rent in a large, family-owned building in the deteriorating garment district of Montreal. His father is a Holocaust survivor and “Gershon was certain that he and other children of survivors were members of a separate Israelite clan, a tribe of inbetweeners, not quite victims and not quite survivors, not rememberers nor forgetters, neither here nor there.” Gershon tries to study religion, tries to live a good life, but he is buffeted at every turn by devious, cunning tenants who try to short-change him in every way.
What inspired him to write Halbman Steals Home book? “Inspiration comes from many sources, but the motivation in my case always comes from a desire to capture a sense of place, which of course is inseparable from the inhabitants and encompasses so much more, such as a community, history and legend etc.,” he said. “For my first novel I was interested in Chabanel and the Montreal garment industry, which has never been described in fiction. With Halbman it was my 'hood,’ the place where I grew up, Hampstead.”
For the reader the Halbman character becomes real every page you turn. But as Rotchin maintains, “no single person in the novel is based on any one individual. All the characters are amalgams, mixtures, a pinch of this and sprinkle of that, all coming from personal experience and memory. My modus operandi for storytelling does not rely on research, as so much fiction does today, but on life-living, so the settings are real places – 99 Chabanel in The Rent Collector, and 92 Hampstead Rd. in Halbman – and I tend to pilfer references from personal experience.”
How does he feel about the somewhat controversial storylines? “Controversy is always good for book sales, but I don't think about it,” he insists. “ In storytelling my chief aim is to document the genuine texture of life, the comings and goings and salient issues of this community and its inhabitants.”
As for the Expos angle, Rotchin was speaking with the Jewish Tribune on the sad day in February when former catcher Gary Carter died from a brain tumour. Why did he devote such a focus on the baseball team, which left Montreal eight years ago?
“A few reasons” he said. “The main one being that a theme of the novel is loss and memory. Mort, and to some extent I, regard the Expos as symbolic of possibility, of ‘being major league’ as he puts it in the novel, and the loss of potential. The Expos are symbolic of Montreal at its height, Expo ’67, and the city’s slide down through the referendum periods into second place, and so many from our community leaving. To me, the Expos represent our generation, born in the ’60s with so much hope and promise, and that there was so much vibrancy and potential lost to other places.
Rotchin confesses that poetry was my first literary love.
“I still read and write it occasionally, but it’s no way to make a living,” he said. “I’m a neophyte at fiction, haven’t written that much, so it still intrigues me. As for book reviewing, essay writing, etc., it’s all part of the same activity, writing in one form or another. I think all forms teach you something and help to hone the writing skill – like cross-training to keep the muscles fit for a sport.
Halbman Steals Home is 192 pages and is on sale now at bookstores and on Amazon.ca.
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