To keep a boy out of hot water, put him on ice.
Not 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)
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.