THE MAN GAME
By Lee Henderson. Viking Canada. 518 pp. $32.
Hollywood legend has it that Alien was sold on the strength of a one-line pitch: “Jaws in space.” It’s easy to imagine The Man Game, the huge and wondrous debut novel from Lee Henderson, being sold in similar style: “Deadwood in Vancouver.”
Like the now-cancelled HBO show, Henderson’s book is chock full of wily prostitutes, take-no-shit bartenders, waves of Chinese immigrants sent up from San Francisco, and generally fuzzy notions of law and history. Both are also beautifully written, with unlikely amounts of poetry scattered amidst waves and waves of cursing. Instead of drunk, violent cowboys, however,The Man Game has drunk, violent lumberjacks. Instead of spurs, they wear flannel.
Written over nine years, Henderson’s book recounts the imagined history of the “man game” — a sport that’s part Greco-Roman wrestling, part ballroom dancing, part bar brawl — which takes the young Canadian city by storm in 1886. The cast balloons into the dozens, but at the centre are Molly Erwagen and her paralyzed husband Sammy, who arrive in Vancouver just as a massive forest fire threatens to swallow the city whole.
An ex-vaudeville performer and current housewife, Molly senses a business opportunity in the working-class loggers, who have no entertainment available to them aside from the usual opium, whiskey, and prostitutes. Behind her husband’s back, she recruits and trains two disgraced lumberjacks as the game’s first players, and together they set out to bring some culture to the barbaric west.
SEE recently woke Henderson up while on a retreat as part of the Calgary Writers’ Festival. He spoke to us over the telephone. He didn’t get out of bed.
SEE Magazine: The Man Game is set in late 19th-century Vancouver, amidst anti-Chinese riots and the great fire of 1886, which nearly destroyed the city the same year it was incorporated. How much of this history did you know before starting the book? Read the rest of this entry »