Rolling with Punches

Thanks to Mark Medley for the profile in the National Post this week.

Lyle Stafford For National Post

After a gruelling week working on the docks, the longshoremen would gather to fight. Convening in a ring in the middle of a rented legion hall in New Westminster, just outside Vancouver, they’d engage in a pastime some may think of as deranged but one they found cathartic: hardcore wrestling.

Lee Henderson visited these real-life fight clubs on an anthropological quest – and on assignment for The Vancouver Sun – interviewing the men about why they did what they did and learning the secrets of this spectacle, part gladiator match, part ballet.

The Ampersand: How to play The Man Game

Big, burly figures, they’d wear colourful tights and would christen themselves with alter egos such as Tornado and Johnny Canuck and, in Henderson’s words, proceed to “beat the s–t out of each other.” They pummelled their opponents with steel chairs and other weapons of mayhem like baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire. They would covertly cut themselves with razor blades hidden in their wristbands to draw blood and further incite the riotous audience, which was “usually much crazier than the wrestlers,” spitting on the wrestlers and subjecting them to vulgar taunts. Fights sometimes broke out in the crowd. There were little kids, old men in wheelchairs with oxygen masks and a man who’d come to every event dressed as an old Klondike prospector. It was circus and theatre combined into one. It was, it was …

“It was awesome,” Henderson says, looking back on these fights almost a decade later. “It was really, really inspiring. I already knew I was going to be doing [a book] along these lines. This was just confirmation that it was the right thing to do.”

These matches form the basis of his first novel, The Man Game. The 33-year-old writer takes that most Canadian of genres, historical fiction, and gives it a contemporary twist, travelling back to 19th-century Vancouver for a strange retelling of the city’s coming-of-age.

“I felt like, if I’m going to face down a novel, I don’t just want to set it in the suburbs, in a familiar world,” he says. “I want to be forced to do something that’s unfamiliar to me.”

To grow familiar with turn-of-the-century Vancouver, Henderson immersed himself in the history of the western city, scouring archives and libraries and used book stores.

In a narrative that spans the great fire of 1886 and the anti-Asian riots that plagued the city, Henderson presents a violent and slightly anarchistic town populated by grizzled lumberjacks, poor Chinese immigrants, quick-witted whores and wealthy industrialists. While based in truth, most of the book is purely Henderson’s own invention.

“I wanted it to be loyal to fiction over history,” he says.

The book focuses on Molly Erwagen, a former vaudeville performer, and her husband Samuel, an accountant, who arrive in Vancouver from Toronto to start a new life. There, Molly befriends a pair of outcast lumberjacks named Litz and Pisk. Molly discovers a city teeming with men on the brink of violence – many are out of work thanks to Chinese workers flooding Vancouver. In an attempt to keep them out of trouble, Molly, Litz and Pisk develop a new sport called the man game, which quickly becomes a phenomenon. It’s a bizarre blend of ultimate fighting, ballroom dancing, Greco-Roman wrestling and the gravity-defying moves of video games such as Mortal Kombat played by half-drunk naked lumberjacks.

“We’re a violent species,” Henderson says. “There’s this tendency for us to test each other through intimidation and violence. And I think that fear and that threat either boils over into real conflict or we find another alternative that is, in a sense, a surrogate violence. It’s either watching movies or ECW [hardcore] wrestling. It’s theatricalized – is that a word? We see it without its full danger. It’s a release, for us, I suppose. I think we want to see it in an environment in which it’s controlled, and that it won’t spill over into our lives.”

Henderson himself isn’t a violent guy; he’s never boxed or wrestled and likely wouldn’t be very good at the man game if such a sport were played. The closest he got to stepping into the ring was the week after his Vancouver Sun article appeared; the wrestling promotion dressed up some schmuck as a fake Lee Henderson – complete with nerdy cardigan and eyeglasses – brought the guy into the ring and proceeded to “totally pile drive him like a hundred times.” He laughs and says he was “pretty stoked” when he heard what had transpired. It’s a fitting reaction: Henderson, an alumni of the University of British Columbia creative writing program that spawned friends including Madeleine Thien, Kevin Chong and Steven Galloway, has a slightly eccentric mind. He curates the Attache Gallery, an art gallery housed inside a briefcase, and hosted Father Zosima Presents, a night devoted to “very quiet, contemplative, improv music.” He writes about art for various publications, and before he was a writer, did the animation for Sonic Youth’s Tunic video.

“I do these little things on the side just to keep me from pulling my face off while I’m trying to write a book,” he says.

His slightly off-kilter tastes make sense if you’ve read his debut, 2002’s The Broken Record Technique, a critically acclaimed collection of stories as bizarre as CanLit law will allow. But The Man Game is his entry into the big-leagues. There were times he wasn’t sure if it would ever get done. One day in 2003, Henderson lay slumped on his bed, nauseous. The book was, at that point, 250 pages long, yet he didn’t feel the story had even begun. He tossed out everything but 20 pages and started again, saying he was always under the impression that once you start something you had better finish it. The writing of The Man Game took eight years, was written in six different apartments, outlasted several girlfriends and concerns one city.

“I knew I needed to write this book. It was just really, really difficult to write,” he says. “[It was a] slow process. Chipping away at a dream. I didn’t have a road map that I was following. … I just kept a trajectory in mind and tried to follow it blindly.

“This was a book in solitary confinement for so long, it’s exciting to see it [finished] and let it go out in the world, make its own friends, make its enemies. It’s its turn now to do its thing.”

• The Man Game by Lee Henderson is published by Viking Canada ($32). To see the man game in action, and for the dates of Lee Henderson’s book tour, visit theampersand.ca.

mmedley@nationalpost.com

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