Of Stripteasers and Scoundrels

Crazy About Lili

By Joel Yanofsky

Published on October 1, 2005

Crazy About Lili
William Weintraub

McClelland & Stewart
$29.99
cloth
272pp
0-7710-8916-3

It’s probably not a label William Weintraub ever expected to have attached to him, even by default, but he has become a kind of grand old man, an éminence grise, of literary Montreal. His long-time pal Mordecai Richler is gone; so is Hugh MacLennan; Irving Layton is incapacitated; Mavis Gallant lives in Paris; and Leonard Cohen has troubles of his own. Meanwhile, last year, Weintraub was named to the Order of Canada, affirming, as the citation said, his “major role in our country’s artistic and intellectual life.” Weintraub still insists that there must have been a clerical error.

Nevertheless, for a 79-year-old who confesses he has never really figured out what he wants to be when he grows up, Weintraub has kept busy in the last decade. In 1996, he wrote the bestselling City Unique, a popular history of Montreal in the 1940s and 50s, the city’s sinful heyday. 2001 saw Getting Started, Weintraub’s memoir of his early days as a writer, including his friendships with Richler, Gallant and Brian Moore. Now there’s Crazy About Lili, the story of Richard Lippman, 17-year-old aspiring poet and reluctant McGill student, and his obsession with the appropriately named Lili L’Amour, a fetching striptease artist. The novel is Weintraub’s first in more than two decades. Pasties and G-string notwithstanding–the story is set in 1948, after all—it’s a rollicking good time.

It’s surprising, then, that when we meet at his home in Westmount as Crazy About Lili’s September publication date approaches, Weintraub is trying to keep his usual twinkle out of his eye. Instead he’s talking rather glumly about how his book might fit into the CanLit canon, which is to say not at all. “What the CanLit reader wants is basically ‘My dysfunctional family is more dysfunctional than yours – on the prairies. I am more miserable in this Newfoundland outport than you are in small town Ontario,’” Weintraub says.

It’s hard to describe the expression on Weintraub’s face as he makes this speech, except to say it’s great. There’s some evidence of the earnest kid who went off to McGill to distinguish himself academically, but found, like his hero in Crazy About Lili, that he had more of a penchant for burlesque halls than for lecture halls. There’s also the wised-up look of a newspaperman, and, later, an NFB filmmaker, who realized that while he might not be cut out to be a great artist, it might be enough, as he puts it in Getting Started, “to lead an interesting – perhaps a very interesting – life.”

Incidentally, Weintraub isn’t done with his impromptu little rant. “What the CanLit reader wants is an edifying message like ‘It is better to love than hate,’” he goes on, and now he’s clearly amusing himself. “So you get 600 pages on that profound insight. No, I can never aspire to CanLit.” When he is done there’s a weary but mischievous grin on his face. That’s a look you earn. It comes from a lifetime’s habit of detecting pretence and sidestepping bullshit. Weintraub has reached the point where he doesn’t have to take very many things or people seriously, himself included. Needless to say, the twinkle is back in his eye.

As it turns out, bullshit–its pervasiveness, its seductiveness–is one of the themes of Crazy About Lili. Weintraub’s lighthearted, fast-paced picaresque novel follows Richard as he encounters an assortment of fools and phonies. Like the priests and politicians who want to run Lili out of town – Weintraub’s title character is based on legendary stripper Lili St. Cyr – or the pretty but impenetrably sincere Sophia, a Westmount debutante and committed communist. There’s also Morty, Richard’s big-shot uncle, who takes his dumbstruck nephew backstage to meet Lili. Richard comes away from the encounter with a souvenir pasty and the belief that he’s found a kindred spirit. Lili, though an incurably bad speller, loves literature and hires Richard to write a poem for her act.

At the start of Crazy About Lili, Richard’s idealism is as intact as his virginity; his desire to become a great poet is matched only by his desire to get laid, preferably before any of his classmates. His eventual coming of age will be funny, just not pretty.

“He is a scoundrel in-the-making. I never had the courage to be as big a scoundrel as I wanted to be,” Weintraub says with unconcealed regret. “I would conceive of some scoundrelly idea and I still don’t know if it was morality or the fear of being caught which would keep me from executing it. So when my character embarked on this career of bad behaviour, I let him go. I endowed him with more courage and stupidity than I had.”

Weintraub also endows his hero with some of his own preoccupations: “What Richard is worried about is becoming a phoney. Anyone who’s interested in finding out about himself experiences that. I’m interested in deception. It’s an interesting subject. It boils down to important questions. Like ‘Who am I? What do I believe in?’” Weintraub says. “But these are lofty thoughts from someone just trying to write a funny book.”

Again, you can guess what Weintraub is thinking by glancing at his face: he’s worried about sounding pretentious. There’s hardly anything he dislikes more. Weintraub is honest with himself, sometimes till it hurts. For instance, he regrets not sticking to fiction. “I did stick to the film business, I was at the NFB for 20 years. But, looking back, I have come to the conclusion I was a dilettante. I wish I had written more books.”

Weintraub hasn’t been prolific, that’s true. He’s written just three novels and they’ve been liberally spaced, one appearing every couple of decades or so. Still, he’s made a mark. His first novel, Why Rock the Boat?, published in 1961 and based on his experience as a reporter at the Gazette, exposed the self-importance of the newspaper business. The Underdogs, a 1979 satire of Quebec’s loopy linguistic policies, stirred up controversy, especially when Weintraub adapted it into a play.

Weintraub isn’t sure what the impact of Crazy About Lili will be; however, writing it did give him the chance to put his knowledge as “a student of the art of the classical striptease” – circa 1920 to 1960 – to good use. He’s not saying how he became a scholar on the subject; in fact, he’d probably be the first to admit there’s a fine line between grand old man and dirty old man. Still, stripping isn’t just a joke in his novel.

“I wanted to recapture an era when sex was actually interesting and mysterious. But where’s the mystery now? At breakfast, in my daily newspaper, I can read about what schoolgirls are doing for their boyfriends in the back of the bus. Surely it was more interesting in the days of my youth, when we were totally ignorant and dying of frustration.

“The thing I like about the strip-teasers in Crazy About Lili is they have a narrative, not just a gimmick. They’re telling a story. Everyone knows the story is going to have a payoff–them with their clothes off–but the story still counts,” Weintraub says. It is, he adds, grinning mischievously again, a lot like writing a novel.

He’s also noticed that the old-fashioned burlesque halls of his youth are making a comeback with a new generation eager for less sleaze and more tease. Evidently, Weintraub is still doing his research. “‘It’s not just about flesh and body parts,’” he says, quoting Vivienne VaVoom, a striptease artist writing for Women’s eNews. “‘It’s about foreplay and sensuality and costumes and glitter.’” If that’s true, and if Crazy About Lili contributes to the striptease revival, Weintraub can rest assured – he will have earned that Order of Canada.

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Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.

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