While standing in line to pay for my groceries, I glanced over the usual World News headlines, gazed for a bit at Betty & Veronica, then turned to check out the left side of the queue. There were a couple of books, most of them devoted to recipes, astrology and whatnot. Also, a paperback novel by Paul Quarrington.
Turns out Paul Quarrington, probably the nation's most reliable producer of literary amusements since the passing of Mordecai Richler, won the CBC Radio Canada Reads competition for his 1987 novel King Leary. For the first time since the Corp cooked up this crazy competition I was a) surprised and b) delighted.
For the uninitiated, Canada Reads is a competition CBC Radio put on air just as Survivor was flexing its television muscle and turning prime time into a “reality” wasteland. The CR concept is something the SCTV crew would have had a field day with: five Canadian celebrities (see what I mean?) are pulled in to promote their favorite Canadian novels. At the end of the show, one novel is “voted off the island.” At the end of the series, the winner receives a chunk of change, along with invaluable Corporation attention, promotion and production (a dramatic rendering of the book). And so it is that I can now stand in line at my local grocery store and purchase a 20-year-old novel about an aging hockey star from the days before The Original Six.
Getting back to Richler for a second, he used to say that Ken Dryden's The Game wasn't just the best book ever written about hockey — it was the only book about hockey worth reading. This was in the early 90s, and I was always a little miffed that Richler didn't give Quarrington's novel the time of day. But then Richler was reluctant to give the time of day to anyone younger than he — unless they looked good in a skirt (Quarrington never had a chance). Dryden's book is a must-read for hockey fans, but Quarrington's has an appeal with a much deeper reach. Here's the closing of the first chapter:
I scored the winner, you know. We were in overtime, in Montreal playing the Canadiens. What happened was, Cy Denneny took out Odie Cleghorn along the boards. Odie was one mean son of a bitch, but nowhere near as bad as his brother, Sprague. The puck pops out and I scoop her and go into the Bulldog. Then I see Newsy Lalonde coming at me. He was the King of the Ice before me, you know, and as nasty a piece of business as was ever turned out of Creation. Yes, sir, Newsy was intending to take me into the boards and probably into the Maritimes, that's how fast he was coming. But then I hear, “Psst, Percy!” and I know Manny is behind me. So we pull a stunt we pulled when we was playing together on the Bowmanville Reformatory's boys' team. Brother Isaiah used to call the play the Magic Stone, but I called it the Doorstep. I drop the rubber between my legs, and put a little spin on it so that it stops almost dead, leaving it at Manfred's doorstep, so to speak. I begin to double back, Manny comes up and collects the puck, and he takes the check for me. That's the point of the play, you see. Manny and Lalonde collide. My Lord, Newsy had his elbows up and he took apart Manny's face with them. Manfred was fair handsome previous to that, you know, but ever afterwards his puss had an out-of-kilter aspect to it. Anyway, the rubber dribbles out from between their legs, and I've timed my circle perfect so that it tumbles onto my blade. Now there's just a lone defender, namely Bert Corbeau. Well, I go into the Whirlygig, and I pretzel the mook! I twist him around so good that his socks end up on different feet. The goaler is Nap Minton, the Little Napoleon. He moves out of the net, and I notice for the first time that his eyes are two different colors, blue and green. I clear my mind, the way the monks showed me. I shoot the puck into silence. Then I hear Manny shout, “Hey!” and from the stand I hear Clay Bors Clinton say “Yes!” and I know that the puck is in the net.
That's how it was back in one-nine one-nine. A marked improvement over how things is now.
Quarrington's fabulist approach perfectly captures the “escape” that hockey offered to the thick-skulled boys from the farm, reformatory school and reservation. He also establishes quite the voice: an outsize ego, the teller of tall tales, but someone who has the inner steel to make it persuasive. Of course, then he has to close it with “Things were better then, than now,” which cinches the novel's set-up. This guy is lying about something — to us, and to himself. Somewhere in his past is a cause for genuine regret, and you have to read this ribald, poignant novel to find out what it is, and if Leary is up to the task of rectifying it.
I'm happy for Quarrington. And I don't believe he could have found a better spokesperson than Dave Bidini — musician, author (including a couple of hockey-related titles) and all-round mensch. And though I remain a little skeptical about the whole enterprise, if the Corp can find it within itself to promote a book that isn't just moving but genuinely funny, I might just tune in to the next round of Canada Reads.
Amazon here. And if I'd been in on this round from the start, my secondary allegiance would have gone to Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl In The Ring (amazon).