Toronto Star Reviews The Man Game

review in the Toronto Star.

Raw and rough and just right

Lee Henderson’s inspired imagining of frontier Vancouver is a loose, baggy monster of a novel that already has him in the running for the big book prizes
Aug 31, 2008 04:30 AM

The Man Gameby Lee Henderson

Penguin Canada,

513 pages, $32

Hooray for The Man Game, and hooray for Lee Henderson.

Henderson is the author of one previous book, The Broken Record Technique, a fine collection of short stories that won the Danuta Gleed literary award in 2003. He’s also got a great-looking website. The Man Game is his first novel, and it’s a terrific debut.

Newlyweds Molly and Sammy Earwagen arrive in Vancouver in 1887, just as a great fire is destroying most of the emerging city.

She’s a 17-year-old ex-vaudeville performer, and he’s an accountant. On the trip out from Toronto, he’s had a serious accident and is now paralyzed from the neck down. As the city struggles to rebuild itself from the ashes, somehow Sammy manages to fulfill his duties at the lumber mill, even though he needs as much care as a newborn.

Meanwhile, Molly witnesses a bar brawl between rival loggers and conceives the idea of the Man Game. As a sport, it’s part martial art and part performance. Maggie and her acolytes Litz and Pisk are betting it’s just the diversion this brutal frontier town needs.

Litz and Pisk are exiled loggers, blamed (rightly or wrongly, we never really find out) for the massive fire, but eager to clear their names and return to their favourite bar.

It’s Pisk who invents the first elements of the game, when he’s called out to fight by his archenemy, the monstrous and elemental Dagget. With no way to prevail in the uneven fight, he clownishly strips naked, dances around his opponent and combines surprise with acrobatics to … well, to deke him out.

The witnessing crowd of lumberjacks and barflies roars with approval as these shenanigans, and Molly’s sense of theatre recognizes the germ of a new – and profitable – sport-cum-entertainment. Molly spends the rest of the novel slowly and carefully manipulating events and people to transform a disparate group of feuding and aimless factions into a cohesive and lively industry.

This is a portrait of early Vancouver as an open, Wild West frontier town. The novel has the now familiar parallel contemporary element, although it adds nothing to the story and could easily be dropped from what is already a long book. It also comes with footnotes placed right in the action scenes that are commentaries on the various competitors’ moves in the man game, complete with diagrams of the opponents’ positions. Again, these are distractions that serve only to distance the reader from an otherwise totally engrossing story.

Don’t let these minor quibbles discourage you. The Man Game is one of the most entertaining, rollicking and original Canadian novels I’ve ever read.

Its large cast of characters are all convincingly drawn, no matter their background. It’s a loose, baggy monster of a novel, and it’s raw and rough in all the right ways. It has a confident use of vernacular that destroys the convention of polite historical novels and animates its characters with a Rabelaisian earthiness. It has a chronological narrative loaded with an anachronistic vocabulary, and a sensibility that lends it both an air of realism and an otherworldly atmosphere.

It’s bright and clear, yet mysterious and dark. It has cowboys and Indians, hookers and puritans, immigrants and racists, and capital and labour. There are hidden rooms and secret passages. There is a woman so beautiful, every man falls in love with her. There is a Whore Without a Face, from whom there is no escape. Naked men cavort in the streets.

More than once during this book, I was sent scurrying for my dictionary. For someone who’s spent a lifetime reading, that’s a pretty rare event. Nevertheless, once this novel draws you in, it keeps hold of you till the end.

One of the delights is how often Henderson avoids the clichéd choice. There’s no investigation into whether Litz and Pisk actually started the fire. The cripple’s wife does not have an affair with another man. Murderers don’t get their comeuppance, the riot doesn’t end in a lynching, and so on. This is the kind of storytelling that makes the unusual and outrageous parts of the story seem real.

Readers looking for historical accuracy might be better off with a different book. Henderson’s mixing of a contemporary vocabulary and his character’s liberal drug use is probably anachronistic, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is, as novel, The Man Game comes to life and moves to its own rhythms.

Toronto’s Michel Basilières is the author of the novel Black Bird (Vintage Canada).

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