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Michael Tregebov/Shot Rock cover

“Shot Rock”
By Michael Tregebov
220 pages
New Star Books
to be released Sept. 26
Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
Michael Tregebov is only one year younger than me. We grew up in the same part of town – although I didn’t meet Michael until I moved to West Kildonan Collegiate from Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate following Grade 10.

 

 

 

 


While I do remember Michael well, what really stood out for me at the time was that he was a “Trotskyite” or, as he explains in his new novel, “Shot Rock”: a “Trotskyist”. Who knew what a Trotskyite or a Trotskyist was in those days? It just seemed to be indicative of a desire to shock others. But, what the heck – Michael was well known to be highly intelligent – as were the other members of his little group.
Fast forward years later and I received a copy of a book written by Tregebov titled “The Briss”. A few years later there was another novel, this time titled “The Shiva”. Can you see a pattern developing?
Okay, I thought, after I had finished reading both novels. Tregebov likes to mine the turf with which he is very familiar: growing up in north end Winnipeg in the 1960s and 70s (in his case, as it was with mine, it was West Kildonan). In both novels he developed a particular style which I didn’t find especially engaging. His characters would speak in short sentences, usually with some smart-alecky remark as part of the sentence. Also, there were no quotation marks. Further, you often had to figure out who exactly was speaking.
“Shot Rock” continues in much the same vein, but this time Tregebov has honed his craft to a much more considerable degree. There is actually a well-constructed plot, not just an excuse to dash off a series of one-liners – which was more the case with “The Briss” and “The Shiva”.


While many of the characters are more caricatures than they are three-dimensional characters, in some cases they are imbued with a real humanity that begins to make you want to find out more about them.
The story revolves around an episode in the history of Winnipeg’s Jewish community that might resonate with some readers – the closing of what had been a predominantly Jewish curling club. In the case of “Shot Rock”, the club is known as the “Queen Victoria”, but anyone who grew up in the Winnipeg of that time and who was familiar with curling clubs would know it to have been the Maple Leaf Curling Club on St. Johns Avenue.
What happens during the course of the book is that the club is slated to be sold – to “Dominion Stores” no less, to make room for a new Dominion Store. (Again, anyone who remembers the old Maple Leaf would realize the idea of it being sold to make way for a large grocery store would have been nothing more than a flight of fancy.)
The central protagonist, Blackie Timmerman, is determined to stave off the sale of his beloved “QV”. Up against Blackie, however, is the formidable Max Foxman who, on top of being a self-confident and very successful businessman, is that dreaded Winnipeg villain – a “south ender”.
Blackie is surrounded by a coterie of like-minded friends – all with nicknames such as Duddy, Suddy, Oz, Chickie, and so on. (Duddy and Suddy are brothers.) It seems that their lives are spent either at work, at the curling work, or eating out at one of an endless series of haunts that would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Winnipeg in that period, including the Maple Leaf canteen itself, the north end Sals, Kelekis, and an assortment of Chinese restaurants. (By the way, how any of these characters could have survived into old age, given the amount of cholesterol they would have absorbed, is beyond me.)

But they’re all quite hilarious. Michael Tregebov has an ear for clever, fast-paced dialogue. Other reviewers have compared him favourably with Mordecai Richler and the colourfulness of his characters would strike any Richler fan as being motivated by the same sense of adoration for a Winnipeg of a certain era that Richler had for his early years growing up in Montreal.
As someone who also tends to look back on 1960s and 70s Winnipeg with a great deal of nostalgia (hey, haven’t you noticed that this paper is just full of stories about what life was like in those days? Just read a Gerry Posner column.), Tregebov has captured so many of the sights and sounds of a bygone era that it is bound to bring a smile to the face of even to the most jaded of Winnipeggers. (I don’t remember eating in Eaton’s Grill Room, for instance, but I do recall hearing how their sandwiches all had the crusts sliced off.)
One of the problems for many readers, however, will be trying to relate to the descriptions of the curling club atmosphere in the Queen Victoria. The author clearly has a very soft spot in his heart for what was the old Maple Leaf Curling Club and he’s very dismissive of the move to the brand new building (which some of us will remember was the “Highlander”.) As for the nuances of curling – well, that also can be a might confusing, but you have to hand it to Tregebov: He does make the game seem exciting. I just find it a bit of a stretch to imagine male Jewish curlers who must have been well into their 40s, if not their 50s and 60s in the 1960s and 70s, sliding out of the hack all the way to the hog line – especially after having consumed as much food as the characters in “Shot Rock” were constantly doing.
Max Foxman is made out to be a real villain in the book and I suppose the manner in which he goes about forcing the sale of the old QV is truly Machiavellian, but the fact that he does get a good price for the old building – and that club members will benefit financially from the sale, should actually be considered something laudable. Thinking back on the history of Winnipeg’s Jewish community, whenever something old gave way for something new – whether it was a synagogue, a school, or an old YMHA, there were always those who were bitterly opposed – especially when the move to build something newer was led by one of the community’s wealthiest “machers”. Isn’t that the way it always is?


There are other side plots in the book - not ones that I found to be of great interest though, such as Blackie’s failed marriage to Deirdre, or the “Trotskyist” leanings of his teenage son, Tino (whose best friend, Michael, is apparently more than just a “friend” to Tino). One side plot that does prove to be worthy of attention though, is Blackie’s relationship with Sophie Foxman, Max’s wife. It’s both humourous and endearing.
Still, as much as I truly enjoyed reading “Shot Rock”, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s too much an inside joke. So many of the references are to real places that if you didn’t grow up in Winnipeg in the 1960s and 70s, just can’t resonate the way they would if you did. Add to that the fact that so many of the characters’ names are taken from real people, you might be asking yourself: Is Michael Tregebov making fun of these people or is he honestly nostalgic about their eccentricities and manner of speaking? (One name in particular jumped off the page for me. I won’t divulge the character’s name, but I think it was wrong to use a highly unusual and easily recognizable name – which did belong to a certain well-known individual. I’m not sure that authors have license to do that sort of thing when it may offend surviving family members.)
I admit though that I read this 220-page book quite quickly because I could relate to so much of the plot – and that I was drawn into the vivid manner in which it brought back to life a period in my own growing up here that I had largely forgotten. I’m sure it will do the same for many of the readers of this paper.


We’ll have more on Michael Tregebov and the history of the Maple Leaf Curling Club in the coming weeks. Hint: Tregebov has admitted to me that his story of a Jewish curling club in Winnipeg splitting up as the result of a north end - south end fissure was entirely made up.

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