31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 22: “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” by Clark Blaise

May 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Montreal Stories

Montreal_StoriesWhen we think of Montreal writers, we tend to think first of Mordecai Richler, the bard of St. Urbain Street. But Clark Blaise also mythologized the city in some of his best stories. As Peter Behrens writes in the introduction to the 2003 volume Montreal Stories, “Montreal functions like an (unreliable) heart within the body of Clark Blaise’s oeuvre: a treacherous, indispensable organ at the centre of his fiction.”

The parenthetical adjective is significant: the eye with which Blaise views the city is noticeably jaundiced. Take, for example, the bravura opening paragraph of the story “Among the Dead,” which reads, in part:

In a certain season (the late winter) and in certain areas (those fringes between the city, and the river that makes it an island) Montreal is the ugliest city in the world. Despite its reputation, its tourist bureaus, most of the island of Montreal will break your heart. … In this, Montreal is truly the Paris of North America. The same bleakness, the same bidonvilles stretching for miles beyond the city walls. Our dream has always been salvation and bonheur, even knowing that we’d ingested the worst of both worlds: the suspicions and ignorance of the petit commerçant, with the arrogant sprawl of America.

This paragraph testifies to Blaise’s often fractious relationship, in his fiction, with Quebec’s largest metropolis: himself a transplant from the United States, the author views the city from the critical perspective of an immigrant. It also testifies to his sublime, seemingly effortless technique.

Both aspects are on display in “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard,” which also blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (a quality Behrens refers to as a “deliberate and daring instability of form” that “anticipates writers like W.G. Sebald.”)

The young boy at the story’s centre is driven and purposeful (“That’s how it is with janitors’ sons,” he tells us), to the point of waiting for a bus at 4:30 a.m. to take him to his paper route after Greek immigrants overrun his own neighbourhood and shrink him out of a viable business. He is ten years old at the time. “After a few days I didn’t have to pay a fare. I’d take coffee from the driver’s thermos, his cigarettes, and we’d discuss hockey from the night before. In return I’d give him a paper when he let me off. They didn’t call me Curette for nothing.”

The nickname, given to him by the nuns at school, means “little priest,” and underscores both the resourcefulness of the boy and his essential otherness. His position as an outsider, even in a city that is teeming with new immigrants – witness, for example, the Greeks who move into the neighbourhood, encouraging their compatriots to snap up vacancies by using for-rent signs written only in Greek – is deeply felt, to the point that he wears a Boston Bruins sweatshirt to hockey games at the Forum. Unlike the hero of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, who wants a Canadiens shirt and is mortified to be given a Leafs jersey instead, Blaise’s protagonist wears the Bruins jersey almost as a coat of arms or an insignia declaring his status as an expat.

Regardless of the association professed by his clothes, the boy is a devoted aficionado of the Canadiens, especially their unstoppable forward, Maurice “Rocket” Richard:

I loved the Canadiens fiercely. It had to do with the intimacy of old-time hockey, how close you were to the gods on the ice; you could read their lips and hear them grunt as they slammed the boards. So there I stood in my Boston Bruins shirt loving the Rocket. There was always that spot of perversity in the things I loved.

Blaise describes the quintessential Canadian (and Canadiens) passion for hockey precisely; “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” pairs well with Mark Anthony Jarman’s “A Nation Plays Chopsticks” as two stories capable of defining, for those who may not entirely share the same degree of interest, what captivates hockey fans about the sport. For the boy in the story, it is not just a pastime, but verges on something almost religious: “[T]here was nothing in any other sport to compare with the spell of hockey. Inside the Forum in the early fifties, those games against Boston … were evangelical, for truly we were dans le cénacle where everyone breathed as one.”

The chronology is important because, as the boy points out elsewhere, this was the time that poor people could still afford a ticket to a Canadiens game at the Forum. Indeed, the first thing the boy tells us in the story is that his family was poor. “It was a strange kind of poverty, streaked with gentility (the kind that chopped you down when you least expected it),” he says. Although the boy is an only child, and thus “there was more to go around,” much of the family’s money gets drunk or gambled away by the patriarch (the alcoholic father being a tried-and-true CanLit archetype).

The family’s poverty is what eventually drives them south across the border to the U.S., where the father hopes to land a job in one of his brother-in-law’s dry cleaning establishments. The job, needless to say, never materializes, and the family returns home in disgrace. The crossing of borders, Behrens notes, is another essential feature of Blaise’s fiction, but more importantly, the return to Montreal reinforces the family’s outsider status. They find the father’s brother, Réal, who had been enlisted to watch the apartment while the family was off pursuing its fortune, “very happily installed.” The ease with which Réal slips into “lifelong comfort and security” is in stark contrast to the boy’s father, whose idea of the good life  is “moving up to the ground floor where the front door buzzer kept waking you up.”

Finally, the attitude toward Montreal, like almost everything in Blaise’s stories is bifurcated. There is the authentic love of the home team and its captain, the Rocket, but this love must be indulged at one remove, from behind the screen of a Boston Bruins shirt. What resounds most clearly at the end of the story is the statement made by one of the residents in a house the family stops at on their way back to Montreal – “Man, you sure is crazy” – a statement the boy adopts for himself, wearing it “like a Bruins sweater, till it too wore out.”

New names, surprise inclusions mark Giller shortlist

October 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

This year’s shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a pumped-up six books, whittled down from a pumped-up, seventeen-book longlist – is surprising both for what it includes and, arguably, for what it omits.

Two of the six finalists were, in my opinion, foregone conclusions going into yesterday morning’s announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues have been receiving almost universal accolades, and have already found places on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist. The only thing arguing against their inclusion on the Giller list would be the jury’s conscious attempt to strike out in another direction. Really, though, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised that those two made the cut.

The same certainly can’t be said for Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of stories, Better Living through Plastic Explosives. (There were audible gasps in the room when the title was announced.) This is a second collection comprising a group of fictions that could best be described as dystopian satire: not the kind of thing that usually falls within Giller’s comfort zone. Its appearance on this year’s shortlist indicates strong support from the jury and a willingness to break out from the kind of kitchen-sink realism that tends to dominate CanLit awards lists. Love it or hate it (and readers have been divided: some adore the book, some quite definitively do not), it represents an unexpected, though not unwelcome, new direction for the Giller’s spotlight to point.

Lynn Coady was nominated for her fourth novel, The Antagonist (actually her fifth book, counting the short story collection Play the Monster Blind), which makes independent publisher House of Anansi Press the only house with multiple books on the list (they also publish DeWitt). The final two spaces were reserved for relatively better-known names – The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” Canadian standard-bearer, David Bezmozgis, for his first novel, The Free World; and Michael Ondaatje, the only certified heavyweight on the list, for his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table.

What is notable about this list (besides the complete exclusion, for the second year running, of any titles from Random House of Canada or its imprints*) is the fact that the list is dominated by relatively reader-friendly, narrative driven books. Even the Ondaatje is by all accounts the author’s most accessible work in years. This is a trend with awards lists in 2011: from the Booker to the Writers’ Trust to the Giller, this year’s juries seem to prefer books with strong stories and an emphasis on character and setting over the kind of über-literary, stylistically challenging works that are often favourites for award consideration.

Perhaps as a corollary, a number of names that are familiar to Giller watchers failed to make the final six this year. Previous nominees Wayne Johnston, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Marina Endicott didn’t make it past the longlist, and 2007 champ Elizabeth Hay didn’t even make it that far. This year’s jury is clearly unafraid to look beyond the usual suspects, extending what can only be hoped is a trend inaugurated by last year’s jury in its shortlist selections. (It should be noted that despite the iconoclastic shortlist, last year’s jury chose the most quintessentially CanLit title – Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists – as the eventual winner: this is a trend that hopefully won’t persist.)

The presence of Annabel Lyon on this year’s jury led me to hope that more than one short-story collection might make the final cut (I’m disappointed not to see Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, which I quite liked, on the list, and I am left wondering exactly what Clark Blaise has to do to get some recognition in this country). Lyon is joined on this year’s jury by American novelist Howard Norman, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and thanks to a quirk in this year’s longlist selection process, the entire population of Canada.

The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on November 8.

*We’ll allow for the moment that McClelland & Stewart, which publishes Ondaatje, is not a de facto Random House imprint.

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?