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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Dreaming of Sport: Memories and Cartoons

  • David Adams Richards (Author)
    Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn't Play. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Paul Quarrington (Author)
    Home Game. Vintage Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Andrew Bartlett

Readers of David Adams Richards’ fiction will not be disappointed by Hockey Dreams. This work conveys the passion for hockey that Richards shared with other young devotees in his native Newcastle of the early 1960s: "Certain hopes you have as a child Books in Review 170 Canadia?! Literature 157/Summer1998 keep you one forever." The youngsters dream they will make the NHL; they dream the NHL will open a franchise in Newcastle. The memories come interlaced with polemics against those who despise hockey, laments at our nation’s neglect of the game, and reflections on its Americanization.

Richards remembers the "real" people here with the same fierce precision he always gives to his fictional characters. At the center is Stafford Foley: "that he was growing blind, and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief in order to see who was on a breakaway, did not deter him. That I had only use of one arm and couldn’t skate— especially backwards—did not deter me either, in my dreams." Stafford remains as dogged in his dream to make the Peewee team as the young Richards does despite his bad arm. The Stafford episodes are terribly tragicomic.

When kids were coming down the ice on a breakaway, Stafford would haul out his handkerchief to wipe his eyes, stuff his handkerchief in his hockey pants and rush bravely toward them. . . .
"Don’t touch him he’ll go into a COMA," was the line shouted in unison by his older sisters, as they stood about the edges of the rink, dressed in their convent uniforms, all wearing button-up blouses and huge crosses.

A sleepwalker, Stafford shows up to play road hockey one February night while "sound asleep;" he keeps his promise to boo the school play in splendid iconoclasm. Although the strategy he and the young Richards use as peewee defencemen seems to consist of standing immobile on the blue line, Stafford saves a goal in spectacular fashion by simply being in the way. Episodes like Neddy Brown’s rescue of Stafford and Michael on the river, the game between the local Bantam team and a Boston team that ends with a hilariously underthought penalty shot, and Michael’s evasion of the Griffin boys gang have all the power of Richard’s fictional prose.

Richards’ love of hockey—"to explain hockey as being part of the natural world of my youth, and therefore essential to understanding a love of my country, seemed slightly pretentious. Still does"—is illuminated by the comments worked into a lyrical description of one of their games on the Mirimachi river, a game played on a rink boarded with railway ties, the nets made of fish twine and the sticks "broken and taped."

Yet as always and quite suddenly, for Tobias and Michael, there was, because of hockey, no more real cold or pain, or terrified nights alone. There was no more shame. They were free.
And this is what the game was about for Ginette, Michael, Tobias, Stafford and me.
I don’t think any of us had ever been free before.
We just held them that was all. It was always about our net.. .

Some might find this sentimental, but the passage is typical in its disciplined conjunction of dream and reality: the play’s being "always about our net" bumps the repetitious being "free" against the boards, against the unembarassing truth that Darren and Paul are hard to beat. Richards’ voice remains paradoxically self-deprecating and opinionated at once. He peppers his enthusiasm with sly confessions: "I have once again crossed the line from rational human being to something else;" "It has always been part of my nature. Half pathologically shy, and half flippant. Even when I was little;" "I was a psychological menace to everyone in Canada when Canada was playing international hockey." The assertions on the political culture of hockey are suggestive provocations rather than sternly researched conclusions. He does venture generalizations about "Canadians": that pretending the NHL is still "ours" is "always one way to get along;" that our being "too polite" has "helped sideline our hockey history;" that we resemble "pathological delusionists." The elliptical text makes many casual allusions to players, teams, even specific plays in memorable games; the absence of supporting explanation confirms that Hockey Dreams is aimed primarily at hockey fans. But everyone interested in Richards’ work should read this fine book, if only to witness what one of our best novelists can do in the form of the personal memoir.

Paul Quarrington’s Home Game, originally published in 1983, aims to be a good-natured tall tale of a bizarre baseball game. Dr. Sinister is the ringleader of a freak show that has settled in smalltown Michigan in the early years of this century. His troupe includes Violet and Daisy Hisslop, Siamese twins joined only at the hip who must have sex before they sleep; Angus McCallister, a giant, and Major Mite, a belligerent foul-mouthed midget; David Goliath, the tall man; Ally, the alligator man of green skin; a fat lady, a wild man, and a two-headed dog. The House of Jonah, a religious sect headed by Tekel Ambrose, the greatest ballplayer who has ever lived, wants the freaks to remove their home from the town’s outskirts; a "home" game will thus decide the question. Nathanael "Crybaby" Isbister, the second greatest player ever, now fallen on black days, stumbles into the freaks’ camp and befriends and coaches them.

The quality of this fiction is cartoon-like. Readers may find Quarrington’s humour juvenile, adolescent. The text assumes getting drunk, having hangovers, and using foul language are themselves funny. Here, the giant Angus and Major Mite play a joke on one of the book’s many nameless "whores"; Angus has informed her his ’"peter"’ is unlike that of other men.

"Big, huh?" the girl would ask with a curious mixture of fear and delight.
"Ah no, it’s no’ that. It’s no’ so big, really. It’s jest that . . . ah, hell, I’ll show ye." And Angus would go to work on his fly-buttons. The girl would watch, spell- bound.
Then Major Mite would poke his head out of Angus’s pants with a broad grin and a "Hi!"

Quarrington employs a metafictional frame: a grandfather is forcing his unhappy grandson-typist to write this book. One dispute touches the question of the tale’s difference from "great literature." We are given the grandfather’s misunderstanding of "realism": "’That’s what Willy Wodon writes! He had this one part where the girl gets gang-banged by one hundred and three dockworkers.’"

After being treated to the sorry or sordid history of each freak, the reader senses Quarrington’s narrative energy picking up at the game itself. But I must confess (granting that tastes in humour are notoriously subjective), not once did I laugh or smile at Home Game. I did laugh aloud reading Hockey Dreams.

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MLA: Bartlett, Andrew. Dreaming of Sport: Memories and Cartoons. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 170 - 172)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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