Winnipeg Free Press Reviews The Man Game

Thanks to Debbie Patterson for the review in the Winnipeg Free Press

Remarkable first novel full of compelling surprises
It’s surprising that a book called The Man Game should have a woman as the central character, bit it’s only the first of many compelling surprises in Vancouver writer Lee Henderson’s remarkable first novel.

The Man Game itself turns out to be an imaginary activity in present-day Vancouver that seems to owe something to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.

It’s an extreme sport that combines brutal violence and slapstick comedy with elements of ballroom dancing and vaudeville.

Competitors are awarded points for successfully executing moves with names like the “Medical Breakthrough,” “Flipping the Bird” and “The Boxing Chinee.” Spectators crowded into the squalid backyard drink beer, cheer and boo, and bet heavily on the outcome.

Just when the oppressiveness of that testosterone charged mob scene becomes overwhelming and claustrophobic, we are taken back in time to the genesis of the Man Game, where the bulk of the novel takes place.

In 1886, as the great fire is destroying Vancouver, newlyweds Molly and Sammy Erwagen arrive in town to begin a new life. Molly sashays through the smouldering carnage, puffing on a cigarette and declaring “I can hardly breath!” while her recently paralyzed husband is carried like so much baggage, bound to a donkey’s back.

They’re accompanied by their gentle and discreet guide Toronto. Henderson plunges us into a wild world of Deadwood desperadoes, predatory capitalists and hoodwinked Chinese labourers, all simmering with resentment and discontent.

Rival logging gangs hopped up on opium, moonshine, illegal gambling dens and dens of greater iniquity threaten to overwhelm the straight-shooting police in this brutal outpost.

We are borne confidently through this dangerous landscape by 17- year-old superwoman Molly, a former vaudeville performer so stunningly beautiful that her glance could “de-bone” a man’s legs.

“Her most humbly elegant fineries tousled about her louche figure; she neither floated above the earth nor ever seemed totally locked to the ground,” Henderson writes. “It seemed that at any given moment she could lift her legs and fly away, kill them all and give birth.”

But though men fall at her feet with protestations of love at every turn, Molly manages all her admirers with aplomb, neither denying nor confirming requital. Rather, with a martial artist’s skill, she bends her opposite’s energy to her own ends.

Inspired by the thuggish desperation of the men in the streets, Molly invents the Man Game and recruits two disgraced loggers to be her accomplices. With help from the women at “Woods” (the aforementioned den of greater iniquity) to spread the word, the Man Game takes the city by storm.

Henderson’s previous credits include a short-story collection, The Broken Record Technique, and contributions to a few arts magazines, including Winnipeg’s Border Crossings.

Here he brilliantly toys with his reader through the inscrutable Molly — seducing us into her twisted scheme, keeping us wondering what she’s really up to, never sure if we can trust her, waiting for her to break our hearts yet completely unable to stop loving her.

And as he plays with our faith in Molly, he daringly challenges our faith in his story.

From the gritty, earthy, hyper-realism of the mean streets of old Vancouver, Henderson ever so subtly begins dropping hints that all is not as it seems.

A slight exaggeration gives way to a touch of whimsy until we gradually begin to suspect that we’re in a work of magic realism, but we’re brought in so smoothly that, when truly magical events being to unfold, everything is earned and logical and utterly satisfying. Our faith has not been misplaced: Henderson is the real deal.

The language of The Man Game is colourful, at turns crass and refined. Full enjoyment of Henderson’s great skill as a wordsmith requires a hunger for new words, a good dictionary and a chortling delight in inventive vulgarity.

As a work of speculative historical fiction, as a study in the nature of unrequited love, as a song of praise to the power the objects of our affections wield, The Man Game becomes more than a ripping good yarn; it’s a stunning achievement.

Debbie Patterson is a Winnipeg playwright, composer and director.

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