The Incomparable Atuk: A Canadian Eskimo’S American Dream – by Arnold E. Davidson

The title of The Incomparable Atuk suggests a certain satiric borrowing from The Great Gatsby. Gatsby may have been “great," but Atuk is "incomparable.” The similarity between the two works extends considerably beyond their titles, however, for Atuk pursues his dream of his own destiny with a dedication worthy of Gatsby himself.

The title of The Incomparable Atuk suggests a certain satiric borrowing from The Great Gatsby. Gatsby may have been “great,” but Atuk is “incomparable.” The similarity between the two works extends considerably beyond their titles, however, for Atuk pursues his dream of his own destiny with a dedication worthy of Gatsby himself. Atuk, moreover, has much the same obstacles in his way as had Jay Gatsby. The Ca­nadian Arctic is even more provincial (in the pejorative sense), more remote from any center of civilization, than is the American Midwest. Nonetheless, Atuk, a Baffin Bay Eskimo, leaves the scene of his humble beginnings to rise to some fame and fortune in his country’s cultural capital. He goes south to Toronto, first to be a poet and then to pursue the more lucrative trade of entrepreneur. Atuk also pursues his unex­amined dream of success to essentially the same end that Gatsby achieved. The novel ends with Atuk certain that he will make a killing in a rigged quiz show with a most unusual gimmick. Strapped in a guillotine, he plays “Stick Out Your Neck”—a “million bucks” if he wins and “KER-PLUNK!” if he loses. Of course Atuk loses, loses to die a death more meaningless and more grotesque than Gatsby’s murder in his swimming pool.

These comic parallels to and mock inver­sions of The Great Gatsby bring us to the heart of Richler’s novel. The Incomparable Atuk, a “Canadianized” version of the American novel, is something more than the slight topical satire that its few critics have postulated.1 The book, in its way, is a devastating critique of both the “American Dream” of materialistic success and the “Americanizing” of Canada. The “American Dream” becomes the “Canadian Dream”; the “Canadian Dream” becomes the “Eskimo Dream.” Atuk’s—by the time it reaches him—thirdhand dream brings that would-be poet from Baffin Bay in the Arctic north to seek his fortune in the more promising climes of Toronto to the south. The dream also brings Atuk to seek his fortune in a field more financially rewarding than poetry. In­spired by Dr. Burt Parks, a Canadian proponent of the power of positive thinking—Parks’s phrase, “What you dare to dream; dare to do,” runs like a refrain through the novel—and by a chance ob­servation of the prices charged for Eskimo sculp­ture by Toronto art shops, Atuk abandons poetry to found “Esky Enterprises.” He brings south all but the most incorrigibly lazy members of his family and gets them to turning out deliberately crude Eskimo paintings and statues. Since he pays his workers only with cheap baubles and the privilege of watching TV (a privilege cancelled if production figures fall off), the profits roll in. The young man is on his way.

A crude and exploitative commercialism per­vades the novel and underlies even such un­likely events as the original discovery of Atuk as a poet. The Eskimo became nationally known when his poems “ran in a series of advertise­ments in magazines all across Canada.” Those ad­vertisements were underwritten by The Twenty- man Fur Company, a “vastly misunderstood enterprise” being criticized at the time “in press and parliament.” The cause of the publicity was the Eskimo’s plight—“dying of consumption, malnutrition, and even frost-bite, all because of what the white man [and more specifically the fur traders] had done to make his [the Eskimo’s] accustomed way of life unfeasible.” To rectify this problem—the fur company’s problem, not the Eskimo’s—a Twentyman adman sent north to polish up the image of the company barters with Atuk and, in exchange for a “sheaf” of “verses,” provides the native with a cigarette lighter and two electric blankets (sure cure for frostbite), a sack of flour and a dozen chocolate bars (to stave off malnutrition). Ads containing Atuk’s poems appear in the national magazines. All Canada can see that fur companies do not reduce the Eskimos to poverty but raise them to poetry.

From the beginning, then, Atuk is the crea­ture of Buck Twentyman, the ultimate tycoon and the villain of the novel. He becomes, for example, an established poet not so much because he is talented but because Twentyman requires his talent, such as it is. It is not much either. His “best loved poem, the one that had appeared in … the national advertisements,” reads:

I go hunt bear in white dawn,
good spirit come with me.
I go fish in silver twilight,
good spirit come with me.
Over the white crust soon comes
forever night
good spirit,
O, spirit,
stay with me.

Atuk can publicly warble these Arctic-night notes wild because Twentyman Fur Company wants a singing Eskimo commercial: “Look how happy our darkies are!” So the poet is later pointedly castigated when he once replaces his “arctic simplicity” with borrowed beat and sings a different song:

Twentyman Fur Company,
I have seen the best seal hunters of my generation putrefy raving die from tuberculosis,
Massey, you square, eskimos don’t rub noses any more and the cats
around Baffin Bay dig split-level houses.
Listen to me, Pearson,
a house is not a home,
an igloo is not a pad. And you, Diefenbaker, can kiss my ass where holy most holy pea-soup hockey players
have rumbled.
Canada, wake up, you’re all immigrants tome:
my people are living like n i g g e r s.

This Eskimo Howl “took Twentyman’s name in vain.” Atuk is to clear all future poems with the Twentyman adman who discovered him.

Soon, Richler shows, Atuk has learned the lesson of his master and is playing the proper commercial game. Even in the john he will dic­tate a poem and, at the same time, calculate where and for how much he might be able to sell it:

“Atuk to Stainsby,” he wrote, “poem, esk. style, broad, rights, CBC Anthology, pay, min. $100. Pub. rights, McAllister’s Fort., min. pay, ditto.”

And then the poem, bland as baby food and appropriate for the most undeveloped palates:

O plump and delicious one
here in land of so short night

In Toronto, the Eskimo has learned how the world turns. His radio is on all night, tuned to a station that might give him “a free television set, washing machine or wristwatch with automatic calendar and built-in alarm,” provided he is lis­tening if the station calls. In the city of oppor­tunity, “an alert Eskimo could even make a start on his fortune while he slept.” Or while he strolls the streets: any place in the city, “Atuk zigzagged in and out of the magic eye doors of the super­markets, chain drugstores, and department stores … just in case he should be the One Mil­lionth Happy Customer to pass through These Friendly Doors, and therefore be showered with munificence.” It is at this point, too, that Atuk imports sundry relatives to staff a ‘‘basement factory” and begins to churn out true Canadian folk art, Eskimo statues that tend to be only slightly inferior to similar products imported from Japan. Soon he is thinking on an even larger level. No more “ignorant nieces breaking up cigars to spice the stew”; no more “gluttonous … uncles boiling his tooled leather belts in the soup.” There has to be, he muses, “another answer. Moulds. Machinery. Mass production.”

Richler’s Eskimo is clearly no standard Rousseauvian savage undone by the crass com­mercialism of a world that he never made. Yet Atuk can play the part of the noble native if occasion requires. Charged once by one of his early patrons, Professor Gore, with selling out to Twentyman, whose fur company “exploits your people,” Atuk responds: “Men with greased words come here and ask me to sign little papers. I am grateful for Toronto’s goodness to me. They give me money. I sign. I am able to send money to the Bay to fight my people’s hunger and sick­ness. Is that bad, Professor?” His tone—the guile­less innocent exploited by the city slicker—is pure hokum. When it comes to promoting an image, Atuk is at this point as innocent as a good presidential press secretary. For example, when a “lady in Regina” sends him a pair of “dreadful” knitted socks, Atuk does not throw the present out: “Treated properly this was just the kind of heart-warming story that would make a big splash in the eastern papers. ‘Develop,’ Atuk wrote on top of the lady’s letter, ‘Hickvillewise.’ ” Nor is Atuk all that concerned with his people. When one brother who objected to Atuk’s treat­ment of the family is out in the city for the first time, Atuk tells him how to cross the busy streets and get safely home: “You wait until [the traffic light is] red and then you run like hell.”

One of Richler’s most effective ironies is to create, in his Baffin Bay Eskimo, a protagonist who is ready to match the modern world before he ever encounters it. In fact, Atuk early demon­strated his capabilities as a competitor, a sur­vivor. As a youth on the tundra, he once found it necessary to dine on a United States Intelligence Officer. The occasion of the meal is never de­scribed, so the extenuating circumstances, na­tionally pleaded when Atuk is finally ap­prehended, do not really extenuate. Yet the diner clearly feels no particular remorse regarding the demise and subsequent disappearance of one Colonel Swiggert. He had already learned his chief lesson in life and learned it well. His father, who, after a National Film Board short on Es­kimo life, preferred to be called the Old One, “had taken” the son “on his lap and told him, ‘For an Eskimo boy to make his mark in the world, Atuk, he must be brighter, better, and faster than other boys.’ ” And hungrier, it might be added.

It can also be noted that the Old One’s paternal advice effectively emphasizes one of the main satiric thrusts in Richler’s plot. The narra­tor goes on to observe that “Atuk had modelled his life on” the “precept” just quoted, and then shows how the son, during a typical day in To­ronto, heeds his father’s counsel: “So that morning he [Atuk] rose as usual at 6:30 a.m., ate a three-day-old crust of bread dipped in whale oil, washed it down with an ice-cold Pepsi and… set right down to work.” In other words, Atuk can succeed in the modem world because he is himself a creature of that world, the stock char­acter in an archetypal capitalist myth. Even from Baffin Bay, a young man on the make, convinced of the power of positive self-interest, can confidently set out to rise in the world.

Toronto—the world in which Atuk makes his rise—also provides Richler with numerous satiric targets. Atuk is at home in this city from the very beginning. Flown south to attend the publisher’s party for his first book of poems, he encounters such treats as a striporama and a midget wres­tling match and “simply refused to return to the Bay.” He has seen the glitter and finds it good. That glitter is so much mined in the novel that one critic sees The Incomparable Atuk as “a sat­ire on Canadian poses and pretenses so sharply localized that it is in fact a roman a clef.2 There are, admittedly, devastating parodies of par­ticular people and especially those members of the Toronto literati who aspire to be, in a term from the novel, the “Tastemakers” of Canada. But we see posing and pretense of a more ge­neric nature too: the would-be bohemian writer who flagrantly “shoots up” what is only the in­sulin he takes for diabetes; the good liberal professor so dedicated to the cause of social equality that he is mortally offended by, say, a flashily dressed black man (the objects of his concern have “no right” to treat his labors on their behalf in that disrespectful fashion); or, conver­sely, there is a Jewish businessman who “engaged only non-Jewish girls at the office [and hired German help at home] in order to demonstrate that he was utterly free of prejudice.” On a still lower level of satire are the various characters in Dr. Parks’ entourage, such as “the strongest stunted man in the world” or Bette Dolan, “Canada’s Darling,” the gullible young virgin whom Atuk so easily seduces and then abandons for someone fat, smelly, and somewhat more real. But on every level the essential element is the same. There is a claimed achievement, a claim of significance that simply is not justified. Dr. Parks himself sums up the whole matter perfectly when he observes that he is “world-famous … all over Canada.”

The “farcical jungle of Canadian idiocies” that Richler charts in The Incomparable Atuk should not then, as George Woodcock suggests, detract from the story of Atuk.3 Atuk, Eskimo that he is, is still a creature of that jungle. But more to the point, the jungle is an imitation jungle; it is mostly imported from the south. As I have al­ready indicated, Richler s main target is double. Debased versions of an Americn dream pervade Canada as well as the United States. So the Ca­nadian imitations, considering Canada’s ineffectual pretense at cultural independence and anti- Americanism, are, for Richler, even more ludicrous than the American originals. This judg­ment is implicit in the novel’s epigraph:

What would happen in Canada if full sovereignty were invoked and the southern border were sealed tight against American mass culture—if the air-waves were jammed, if all our comic books were embar­goed, if only the purest and most uplifting of Amer­ican cultural commodities were allowed entry. Native industries would take over, obviously. Cut off from American junk, Canada would have to produce her own (Richard H. Rovere, Macleans, November 5, 1960).

Canadian junk would be produced, of course, according to the familiar American models. But it already is being produced that way. Atuk’s first paying job in Toronto is to write for Metro, the magazine for cool canucks. The editor expounds on the magazine’s plight: “We’re fighting for our life here. We stand for a Canadian identity and the American mags are trying to drive us out of business.” Then he gives Atuk his assignment. A western story razored out of a 1940 issue of a popular American magazine is to be “re-set… in Moose Jaw 1850.”

Yet Woodcock’s criticism of the novel’s lack of focus is partly valid. The satire does some­times get out of hand, and the targets can be “topical in a rather ephemeral way.”4 The death of little Wayne Peel, who, born sickly and un­derweight, was treated with massive doses of vitamins, “until, finally, too healthy to live he died,” really does not fit into the novel. The Peel family’s regularly staged bomb-shelter drills, in­cluding the practice “execution” of a “neighbor” trying to take shelter in their shelter is definitely dated. Other episodes may only partly fit into the novel but they are so humorously managed that one can hardly object to their presence. Thus we have Sergeant Jock Wilson, “who decided to join the RCMP after he had seen Gary Cooper in Northwest Mounted Police; who, later, in drag and as Jane, is assigned to seek subversives among the fast set; who (horrors!) falls in love with a young man being investigated, who (joy!) turns out to be a famous woman reporter dis­guised as a man and also investigating the fast set. Through a series of events too complex to summarize, Jock/Jane also ends up as Miss Canada and might even become Miss Universe, which would definitely be another “first for the force,” but hardly in the envisioned Gary Cooper tradition. It is all amusing, and only the most uncompromising proponent of thematic unity could wonder whether the misadventures of Jock/Jane really complement those of Atuk.

Richler also does not resist the temptation to play satiric variations on a theme that he treated more seriously in his earlier fiction, and particularly in Son of a Smaller Hero. The Es­kimo as outcast becomes the Eskimo as Jew. “We are the chosen pagans, my son,” explains the Old One to Atuk. He also emphasizes that the chosen must stay chosen: “It all begins with taking a bath. It seems a little compromise, I know. But one day you take a bath and the next you have turned your back on your own people.” The point of the warning is Atuk’s plan to marry one Goldie Panofsky. Her brother, Rory Peel, the “liberated Jew” in the novel, opposes the match:

“Atuk, I’m pleased to have you as a business associate. But you’re not … well, fit to marry into a Jewish family.”
“You don’t understand. Jewish, Protestant, you’re all white to me.”

The sardonic reversal is amusing, especially when it is reversed again. “Being called white … was the compliment, the state of grace, [Rory] had striven for all his life.” But voiced by Atuk, that compliment becomes merely another racial slur. Rory is now affronted that his own excluded status is so cavalierly dismissed. All of which has little to do with the main themes of the novel, but it does show that Richler is as willing to satirize Jewish matters as Canadian ones.

The sometimes wandering novel is thor­oughly back on track in Part Three. Part One, “What You Dare to Dream, Dare to Do,” was followed by Part Two, “Eskimo Tycoon.” Both lead to “This Was the Noblest Canadian of Them All.” As the title of Part Three—with its obvious reference to the funeral of Julius Caesar—sug­gests, the wages of overweening ambition will be death. That death comes when Atuk decides he is more than a match for his mentor and former model, Buck Twentyman, the preeminent tycoon. The latter’s rhetoric is Canadian, but his interest is cash. To promote both his recently acquired television station and a new line of frozen foods, Esky-Foods, Twentyman comes up with a promising format for a quiz show and arranges for Atuk to be the first contestant. This show, “Stick Out Your Neck,” epitomizes the chicanery and cupidity that motivate most of the characters in the book. It also serves to bring the novel full circle. The Incomparable Atuk begins with Twentyman importing a guillotine into Canada. It ends with Atuk in the guillotine, the guillotining, and Twentyman’s wonderfully hypocritical funeral oration.

The show that was to be rigged so that Atuk would win was really rigged so that he would lose. Twentyman had earlier noted that he could profit more from a martyr than a hero. Besides, the real tycoon’s Eskimo was getting uppity. Twentyman’s newly formed company, Esky- Foods, was also “in direct competition with one of America’s largest, most deeply entrenched … food combines.” SoTwentyman sells the sponsor­ship of “Stick Out Your Neck” to the Amer­ican company, a fact he points out in the final sentences of the novel: “ ‘Atuk is dead.’ He told them how, where, and pointed out the country of origin of the show’s sponsor. ‘Friends, Canucks, countrymen,’ he went on, ‘use your noggins ..” Twentyman here speaks to lament Atuk’s passing to approximately the same degree that Mark Antony came to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Twentyman’s message is really to buy Ca­nadian, to buy Twentymanian. His fellow citizens should certainly not use their heads to wonder whether they should buy at all. Nor did Atuk use his. Quite the contrary; it was used. In several senses, Atuk was ripped off. Indeed, at the end of the novel, the basket of the .guillotine contains the final demonstration of the high cost of his low dreams.

The Incomparable Atuk is, finally, a cutting satire on personal cupidity, pervasive commer­cialism, Canadian pretentions (Jewish, Gentile, and Eskimo), and, for Richler, the junk that passes, in Canada and the United States, as culture—both high culture and popular culture. A satire that takes on so many targets and does them in in so convincing a fashion surely merits some consideration.


1. Richler’s critics have generally ignored or passed quickly over The Incomparable Atuk. George Woodcock, for example, in his book Mordecai Richler, Canadian Writers no. 6 (Toronto; McClelland and Stewart, 1971), devotes only three pages to this novel, which he characterizes as an “entertainment and little more” (p. 44).
2. George Woodcock, Mordecai Richler.
3. Woodcock, Mordecai Richler, p. 45.
4. Woodcock, Mordecai Richler, p. 46.

Source: Arnold E. Davidson, Mordecai Richler, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1983; pp. 105-118


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