Vancouver Sun Reviews The Man Game

Dan Rowe reviews the book for the Vancouver Sun… I cut out the last part where he disses me because the rest of the review makes some decent observations worth archiving here…

Saturday » August 30 » 2008

Reimagining the past Lee Henderson conjures up Vancouver in the 1880s Dan Rowe Special to the Sun Saturday, August 30, 2008 THE MAN GAME BY LEE HENDERSON Viking Canada, 513 pages ($32) – –

Lee Henderson’s first novel, set in Vancouver, features frequent drug use, a thriving sex trade, violent rivalry between groups battling for territory and business, an uneasy relationship between ethnic groups, a tragic wheelchair-bound figure named Sammy and even a disembodied foot that turns up on the shore. However, The Man Game, which also features the daughter of two vaudevillians as a main character, a cameo by the Knights of Labour and the construction of the CPR station on False Creek, is primarily set in 1886 and 1887. But this is not your mom’s historical novel. Henderson has set his story in the past but doesn’t rely on research or notable historical events to guide the narrative. In fact, the recent novel The Man Game most reminds me of is Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, which reimagined the well-known story of the settlement of the Virginia town (with John Smith, Pocahontas and friends) but set it in a post-apocalyptic future.

First and foremost, Henderson, a graduate of the University of B.C.’s vaunted creative writing program, uses his considerable creative powers to create a pre-industrial Vancouver that includes every aspect of that world, from Chinese bakers to out-of-their-element Easterners to rough-and-tumble lumberjacks. They all come together around something called the man game. The game, as Henderson describes it, is a sort of precursor of professional wrestling, except that the animosity is mostly real. Molly Erwagen, a recently married 17-year-old former vaudeville actor who has spent time in the capitals of Europe (which are, in all respects, a long way from the mean, crude, muddy streets of 1880s Vancouver), creates the game after witnessing a fight between rival loggers. Her protégés are Litz and Pisk, who have been exiled because of their role in causing the Great Vancouver Fire. Together, Molly and the two men develop a series of moves, which are illustrated with line drawings at the bottom of many of the pages. There is also a component of the story set in the present day. The man game is being resurrected in the backyard of an East End home filled with man game memorabilia. Here we are introduced to the narrator, Kat, and his unrequited love, Minna. If this sounds like a lot of characters and threads to keep track of (and I’ve left some out), well, it is. It wouldn’t be surprising if your attention started to flag during some stretches of the book, which clocks in at more than 500 pages. And it may be that even Henderson ran into this problem. But there are some passages that are brilliant — particularly anything involving Erwagen and her new husband, Sammy, who was paralysed in train accident. Henderson juxtaposes Molly’s desirability with Sammy’s immobility, creating a love story that is both tender and complex. In some ways, it seems an extreme mirror of Kat and Minna’s platonic relationship in the present day. Throughout their time during the re-creation of the man game, Kat seems almost emasculated by the attention Minna draws from its far burlier participants. But he, like Sammy years earlier, is at a loss to do anything about it. One of the most compelling parts of the book comes when Sammy and Molly attempt to renew their physical relationship despite the obvious hurdles. Read on its own, the scene might at first seem almost insensitive and even a little bit grotesque. Sammy’s flaccid penis is described as a “bobbing eel,” Molly’s nipple as a “hard ruby.” But the use of language and metaphor are of a piece with the rest of the novel. And the climactic paragraph, with all of its coarseness, concludes one of the most affecting and memorable passages. “She lowered herself gently and with utmost grace and purpose on to the buoy of his lap,” Henderson writes, “and if anything was possible, then before she left the house to embrace a life with other men, he’d give her all his coagulated love.” It’s clear that Lee Henderson is very clever and immensely talented. Dan Rowe is a writer based in Toronto and Syracuse, N.Y. © The Vancouver Sun 2008 Copyright © 2008 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved. CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

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