21 December 2016

A 1980s Duddy Kravitz?



I Lost It All in Montreal
Donna Steinberg
New York: Avon, 1983
Mordecai Richler. Philip Roth. Move over. 
— Thomas Schnurmacher, The Gazette, 31 July 1982
The hype began many months before this novel's release; there were radio spots and a number of pieces in the Gazette. It was through the latter that I learned of an I Lost It All in Montreal t-shirt. I never saw one, nor did any of my friends. We were all entering Concordia, which Donna Steinberg had also attended. I Lost It All in Montreal, then titled Don't Pack Me a Sandwich, had been her master's thesis. This was seven years before alumnus Nino Ricci earned a GG for Lives of the Saints.

Donna Steinberg
The Gazette, 26 February 1983
Steinberg was admirably open. In interviews, she revealed that the reception to her thesis had been lukewarm, while McClelland & Stewart had rejected it outright. Avon had been receptive, but had wanted a new title.

We teens rolled our eyes, all the while envying her success. A cocky lot, we felt no need to read it. We were sure we had this novel pegged. As it turns out, we were very nearly right.

I Lost It All in Montreal is another story of a sheltered, spoiled young woman who falls for fantasy, encounters reality, and emerges a strong, independent person. The young woman here is Shayna Pearl Fine, a self-described Jewish Princess who lives with her parents in their 14-room Hampstead house. At twenty-three, Shayna is still a virgin, though she does have a boyfriend in Stanley Drabkin, "B. Comm. (Bachelor of Commerce), B.C.L. (Bachelor of Common Law), C.M. (Certified Mensch)". We open on a scene in which Stanley appears at the Fine home having made no small secret of his intent to propose. Shayna's mother is pleased, but the prospective bride is horrified:
     "Propose as in m-m-marriage?"
     "I'm willing to bet my life on it."
     "M-m-marriage as in 'Till Death Us Do Part'?"
     "Knock wood," she banged the cupboard door.
Shayna has much she wants to accomplish before marriage. Besides, balding, loafer-wearing Stanley is far, far from her ideal man: Kris Kristofferson.

On the way to the restaurant at which he plans to pop the question, Stanley takes Shayna to see Peter Simon Freeman and the Extinct Species Band at the Cock 'n' Bull. And why not? They're "Canada's answer to the Eagles". Sure, it's not exactly Stanley's scene, but Peter Simon Freeman is a client.
It was love at first sight.
     The moment Peter Simon Freeman walked out onto the stage in his faded jean shirt and skin-tight beige Levis, I fell head over heals in love with him.
So begins "Knight Rider," the second of the novel's five parts. Shayna treats Stanley like crap and flirts with Peter. Early the next morning, the musician shocks the Fine parents by picking up their daughter on his Norton Commando. That same morning, Shayna loses her virginity to Peter in his McGill Ghetto flat.

Then, it's off to L.A.!

No, not Shayna, but Peter and his band. They fly west and south to record their debut album, while, she returns to her job writing filler for the Cote Saint Luc Weekly Register (read: The Suburban). Given that Shayna and Peter shared little more than a one morning stand, I didn't expect that she'd ever hear from him again.

I was wrong. A telegram is quick to follow:


A telegram? In the 'eighties? The nineteen-eighties? Oh, why not... telegrams are easier to share and can be reread, whereas phone calls cannot.

Shayna pretty much decides to "TAKE A CHANCE," while best friend and personal blow job instructress Jo Ann Pecker suggests that things might be moving just a little too fast.


Who am I to disagree with Jo Ann Pecker?

A twenty-something loses her virginity to a man she just met, while that man looks to shack up with a woman with whom he hasn't yet spent a day. And then they do. No novel has moved at such a pace since Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street.

Five months prior to the novel's release, Thomas Schnurmacher wrote: "I Lost It All in Montreal is as inspired and controversial a reflection of Jewish life in Montreal in the 1980s as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was in 1959."

I can't say this is an inspired work. I remember no controversy. Which isn't to say that I'm not still envious.

The worst sex scene in Canadian literature?: I Lost It All in Montreal features several contenders, beginning with the one in which Shayna masturbates in the Fine family's sunken marble bathtub.

The five-page scene in which Shayna has sex for the first time is worthy of consideration, but it pales beside the one in which Shayna pleasures Peter whilst his five-year-old son, Nicky, and much older drummer, Bozo, watch television in the adjoining room. I present the scene in full. Consider yourself forewarned.


A shame that the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award was ten years in the future.

Trivia: I Lost It All in Montreal is the fourth novel in this exploration of CanLit's forgotten, suppressed and neglected to feature a character who is a gynaecologist.

Object: A 262-page mass market paperback. The last three pages are taken up by ads for Anton Myrer's A Green Desire, Joyce Maynard's Baby Love, and A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail Godwin.

The cover illustration (uncredited) does not depict at Norton Commando.

Access: Curiously, Concordia University has no copy, though you will find it at McGill, Memorial, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and Library and Archives Canada.

On 26 February 1983, one month after publication, the Gazette reported a second printing. I've yet to see a copy. Used copies of the first edition are listed for sale online at prices stretching from US$4 to US$16.85.


Remarkably, a French translation, Ça s'est passé à Montréal, was published in 1987 by Éditions le Jour.

The motorcycle on the cover is not a Norton Commando. The man should have a beard. The woman should be wearing Calvin Klein jeans and a Geoffrey Beene top.

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