King Leary by Paul Quarrington

To keep a boy out of hot water, put him on ice.

2322130Not all Canadians are big hockey fans, and I am in the camp that is not. So, a book about hockey and a bunch of ancient hockey players? It doesn’t sound very appealing to me, but I put my qulams aside and trusted in the many people who have loved this book since it was written in 1987, while in the process fulfilling the ‘Q’ requirement for my A-Z CanLit Project.

Paul Quarrington wrote several other books as well, the one appealing to me the most being Whale Music (and not just because I love the title), but King Leary is the one I had sitting on my shelf, and it is also the book that won the 2008 Canada Reads competition. And, like every good Canadian (right?), I hope to read all the Canada Reads selections eventually…

Dave Bidini, who championed the novel during the competition said, “It hit close to home because it was about hockey. I never thought a serious work of literature could have anything to do with that.”

Goodreads synopsis: Percival Leary was once the King of the Ice, one of hockey’s greatest heroes. Now, in the South Grouse Nursing Home, where he shares a room with Edmund “Blue” Hermann, the antagonistic and alcoholic reporter who once chronicled his career, Leary looks back on his tumultuous life and times: his days at the boys’ reformatory when he burned down a house; the four mad monks who first taught him to play hockey; and the time he executed the perfect “St. Louis Whirlygig” to score the winning goal in the 1919 Stanley Cup final.

Now all but forgotten, Leary is only a legend in his own mind until a high-powered advertising agency decides to feature him in a series of ginger ale commercials. With his male nurse, his son, and the irrepressible Blue, Leary sets off for Toronto on one last adventure as he revisits the scenes of his glorious life as King of the Ice.

But did I like this book about hockey? Yes! (Partly because it’s not really about hockey.) Although I did find some parts hard to grasp until I went over to hear the conversation about it on Write Reads. They cleared a few things up for me, and confirmed some inklings that I had. First off, this is not really a funny book even though it’s billed as one. It’s written in a humorous way; specifically the dialogue (inner and outer) of Percival Leary, but the subject matter is dark. Some parts of the book were even heart-breaking. (I agree with you Tania that Manny’s story is so sad!).

There is a LOT of alcoholism. Pretty much every character is an alcoholic, with the exception of Percy who prefers to drink Canada Dry ginger-ale. There is guilt and regret; his entire life is nothing but guilt and regret. He failed to make basic emotional connections with his friends and family (casually mentioning things like his father’s death and his wife’s health issues like they are far removed from him, and his poor sons – ‘Gormless Clifford’ and Clarence who writes ‘obscene’ poetry), and instead defines himself by his successful career in hockey. He sees himself as the King of the Ice, and believes others also see him this way. But at some point in the book you realize everything you are reading is through Percy’s own perception of himself and the events of his life. And it isn’t until the end of his life that he starts seeing it as it really was – full of bad decisions and mistakes. The end of the story sees him desperately trying to make up for his mistakes, but at this point, of course, it’s too little too late. Although, the gesture he makes at the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame is touching, and I was consoled by the fact that the ghosts were present to witness it. (yes, ghosts)

Don't let this whimsical cover fool you...

Don’t let this whimsical cover fool you…

The genius of Paul Quarrington is that he can tell this bleak story in a way that feels entertaining; until you think about it and realize that it is actually quite depressing. He slips in subtle jokes that the reader can see but the character doesn’t recognize, which in the end makes the character seem even more pathetic. A re-read of this book I’m sure would bring even more of this subtlety to light. It’s good to go into this book knowing there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Another thing I liked about this book was the nostalgic feeling of the ‘good old days’; a bunch of kids outside playing hockey on the pond, wearing big sweaters and no helmets. And I think things could have gone more merrily along for Percival Leary if it hadn’t been for his ‘friend’ Clay moving to town. The first thing he ever did to Percy was punch him, and then they were life-long ‘buddies’ after that. And never mind the ‘lit bag of doggy-doo’ trick gone wrong, causing Percy to be sent to the monastery to be ‘reformed’. But Clay keeps coming back – he won’t go away. And he, in my opinion, is the catalyst for everything else that goes wrong in Percy’s life. Would Percy have turned out the same without Clay? Maybe. But we’ll never know.

A few passages to give you a sense of the writing style and the humour:

Maybe I shouldn’t say this, considering what I became to the city, but I didn’t think much of Toronto the first time I saw her. At sixteen you think a city should be full of cowboys, bosomy ladies, Indians and scoundrels, carnivals and taverns, fistfights and love affairs, mooks with tattoos on their faces, women with garters above their knees – in short, the kind of place where Blue Hermann’s been living most of his life, wherever the hell that is. But Toronto looked as if it had been designed and built by a committee of Sunday-school teachers.

This was the early times with Manfred. I allowed as he probably could go for a glass of beer. We didn’t know so much about the whole deal back then, didn’t even have the word “alcoholic.” That came up in the forties while my boy Clarence was busy becoming one.

I married Chloe Elizabeth Millson in the summer of nineteen twenty-three. How this event transpired is still something of a mystery to me… The deal was, Chloe would have no compunction against stripping off and swimming in my sight all in the buff-bare… and I in turn would join her in holy wedlock. Back in those days, that was the kind of deal you made.


32 thoughts on “King Leary by Paul Quarrington

  1. whatmeread says:

    Hmm, I don’t think I’m going to run right out and buy this one. Did it have anything to do with King Lear or is that just a jokey title?

    • Naomi says:

      There were definitely echoes of King Lear, but they are not hugely obvious to someone who is not on the lookout for such things (like me). I did have a small think about it, though, because the title so strongly suggests it. A Shakespeare enthusiast may be able to pick out more similarities than I did. In fact, someone should do just that – I would be interested to know!

      • Naomi says:

        He has 2 sons, but one of them is ‘cast out’ in a way, his father holding something against him all these years that it turns out he didn’t even do. The other son is the culprit and has known it all this time but has never said anything. In any case, neither of the boys should be held responsible for the unfortunate event since they were just very young boys when it happened; their father is being unreasonable.

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    This sounds like more of a classic CanLit book. but I’m weirdly drawn to it. I didn’t grow up loving hockey (that whole immigrant thing) but have developed an appreciation for it thanks to my husband (who loves all sports and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of sports stats, plays and history). I hadn’t actually thought to go back and read all the Canada Reads titles but maybe I should…this one is definitely on my radar now thanks to you!

  3. FictionFan says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this and I enjoyed your review. But! The book sounds as if it contains just about everything I hate in a book – especially sport and alcoholism! I feel duly warned and shall wait for your next recommendation… 😉

    • Naomi says:

      If you don’t like to read about alcoholism, then I guess you better avoid this one. There’s a lot of imbibing! Almost too much, really.

  4. The Cue Card says:

    It’s a bit too bad that they marketed the book as funny though it’s not really that way. It seems it should be judged on its real merits, eh? I think it sounds appealing as a nostalgic look back on his life, instead of this goofy thing. I hadn’t heard of this one, but I like sports novels so I might check it out. thx

    • Naomi says:

      Despite the bleak story, it’s written in an entertaining way, which kind of distracts you from the darkness. But you’d be caught off guard if you went into it thinking it was just plain funny.
      If you like sports novels, then you might want to give this one a try!

  5. Read Diverse Books says:

    I really should think about joining a reading challenge this year. It’s never too late, right? I’m thinking of doing Book Riot’s Read Hearder challenger. We’ll see.

    It’s so cool that this is a Canada Reads winner. I didn’t know anything about Canadian Lit until I started reading your blog! So thanks for that. 🙂
    I appreciate that the bleak story is told in an entertaining, and sometimes lighthearted way. You know I don’t shy away from books with difficult subjects, but sometimes I need levity in my life.

    • Naomi says:

      The humour definitely makes the book much easier (and more fun) to read! I love writers who are able to write about heavy stuff with a light touch. I think it would be hard to do.

      It’s never too late to join a challenge! The Book Riot Read Harder sounds like a good one – I’ve been tempted by it myself.

      It makes me happy that I have introduced you to CanLit. Thanks for telling me. 🙂

  6. Carolyn O says:

    This sounds like a book I would love–it has a very Richard Russo flavor to it, from the excerpts you chose. I’m glad you read and reviewed it!

    • Naomi says:

      I really have to read one of Russo’s books, so I’ll finally know what you’re talking about. I own Empire Falls, but for some reason I feel like it’s not going to be good enough. What do you think?

      • Cecilia says:

        I’m in the same boat, Naomi! Waiting to get to Empire Falls which has been sitting on my shelf for several years now. I have not read Russo yet either but Carolyn is the one to talk to! She had recommended one or two of his books in particular.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad it’s not a memoir. I would have been even more disgusted with the characters had they been real. (Although I’m sure there are many real people out there just like them!)

  7. Cecilia says:

    Funny, I was a huge hockey fan as a teen! I think this sounds interesting because of the deeper subject matter, especially as the mom of a boy I’m (as we’ve chatted about before) interested in stories about boys and men. Have you read The Art of Fielding? That was another popular book centered around baseball but really not about baseball. I also have it on my shelf and am wondering when I will get to it.

    • Naomi says:

      Haha. Another book we share on our shelf-to-be-read! I also have The Art of Fielding but haven’t read it yet.

      I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t have pictured you as a huge hockey fan. But, then again, most people are surprised when they find out I like football. 🙂 It’s partly what we are exposed to, I think. My Dad watched much more Football than Hockey, and I would sit down and watch it with him.

      • Cecilia says:

        Haha, in my comment I actually started to explain how I got into hockey but then deleted it…it was because these girls I was friends with at the time loved hockey, and I ended up having a crush on one of the players 😉 But I did start watching the games for the games themselves! I agree about the exposure. I actually loved basketball in the same way – it was the game my dad watched. A lot of women love football, I have found!

      • Naomi says:

        Having a crush on one of the players is definitely a good way to get to like a sport! 😉
        Basketball is another one I like! That one is partly because I was actually half good at it myself once upon a time.

      • Naomi says:

        At first I was better than them and they were surprised (I’m not at all sporty), but my son has been practising…

  8. ebookclassics says:

    I’ve been interested in King Leary since Rick reviewed the book. I’m also weirdly attracted to this book because of all the Canadian elements. Following the conversation about humour, it makes me think about the discussion we had also about the lack of funny CanLit.

    • Naomi says:

      This book is funny and not funny at the same time. I don’t really know how he does it – I think it would be hard to do. If you feel interested in it, and in a Canadian book that might make you chuckle, then you might want to try it. His other books might be similar- I’m curious to try them.
      I think there is lot of CanLit to choose from if you’re looking for something light or funny!

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