Winnipeg Free Press Review - Wiseman's Wager

Charming novel revels in North End roots
Reviewed by: Dave Williamson

Saskatchewan's Dave Margoshes — poet, short-story writer, novelist — knows a few things about writing, and his new novel is, among other things, about novel-writing.

It's also about memory and how everyone, in remembering, embellishes the facts, often unwittingly. And it's a look back over the 20th century in Canada from one engaging raconteur's point of view.

This thoroughly readable and humorous novel will especially appeal to Winnipeg readers; much of it takes place right here, in the old days.

When we meet main protagonist Zan Wiseman, it's 1988 and he's 82, has recently moved to Calgary, and is discussing his life with a young psychotherapist named Zelda. (That the novel has two key characters whose names begin with Z suggests you can expect a little quirkiness.)

Ever patient and polite, Zelda, over six months of weekly meetings, draws from Zan details of his Jewish upbringing in Winnipeg's North End ("They say Portage and Main is the centre of Winnipeg but that's a goyisha fabrication... Selkirk and Main, that's the heart of Winnipeg city"). He drops out of school, yearns to be a writer and falls for Luna, a professor 15 years his senior.

She inspires him to write a novel. "All during the two years and more he'd laboured over The Wise Men of Chelm -- writing it, rewriting, honing, polishing till he was satisfied with every action, every gesture, every word -- he'd had at his availability her hot breath and cool hands, her passion along with her whispered encouragement, a muse in every sense."

The book is published, but soon falls out of print, only to be rediscovered years later and made a popular and critical success. Meanwhile, Zan becomes embroiled in Communist party activities (Winnipeg's legendary Joe Zuken, another Z, puts in an appearance), has a brief, loveless marriage with a woman named Goldie, moves to Toronto, enjoys life with a teacher named Rose, and works at various jobs while battling the world's longest case of writer's block. He winds up with another professor, Myrna, in Las Vegas, of all places.

Wiseman's Wager is episodic, and little is delivered as linear plot. Through his sessions with Zelda, Zan reflects, reconstructs, sorts and analyzes, piecing together the highlights, often returning to those he's already mentioned to enhance or contradict his recollections. His childhood with his parents, his brothers and his sister becomes especially vivid. Zan's rush of language, spiced by Yiddish words, is reminiscent of the first-person narratives of Philip Roth characters such as Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman.

One of Zan's older brothers, Abe, is still alive, still running a tailor's shop in Calgary. Margoshes diverts the reader from the therapy-driven narrative with frequent all-dialogue scenes between Abe and Zan. An example of their banter:

"I can see you had a bite, which I don't begrudge you. My house is your house."

"Except the kitchen."

"Except I asked you not to wash the dishes, not to touch things. How many times I gotta ask you, Zannie?"

"So what's so wrong with me washing the dishes? They're dirty, they have to be washed. Why not by me?"

"Because you're half-blind."

There are also lively excerpts from Zan's journal, as well as Abe's monologues to his hospitalized wife, Dolly.

Through Zan's therapy sessions, he starts finding the incentive to write that elusive second novel. For the reader, it is quite conceivable that Wiseman's Wager is the result.

Margoshes has authored such fine books as the novel Drowning ManBix's Trumpet and other stories and the delightful poetry collection The Horse Knows the WayWiseman's Wager continues their high standard.


Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel is called Dating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2014

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