As I currently make my way through the last of this year’s Canada Reads nominees, with the encouragement of the last KIRBC meeting, I thought I’d take a gander at last year’s surprise winner King Leary. Of course from a publishing point of view, it was an interesting story that demonstrates the power of Canada Reads; when King Leary was selected it was out of print, but the CBC nomination and win rocketed it into bestseller status.
Interestingly, what happens within the novel itself is pretty much the opposite, for King Leary is the story of the titular former hockey star’s descent into madness and infirmity (just like King Leary’s Shakesperian namesake). A winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for humour, most of the novel’s humour stems from the curmudegeonly remarks of the narrator (for example: “The director has apparently been taking Hitler lessons. He is screaming at everybody and has created an atmosphere of intense hatred and mistrust. Apparently this is crucial to the making of television adverts.”) He is self-centered, caught trapped in the past, and unabashedly vociferous with his opinions. Quarrington is bang on in Quarrelsome old man mode, and this voice is what distinguishes the book and gives it authenticity.
Oscillating between present and past, Leary recounts the rise and fall of his career, along with the stories of two of his lifelong companions – Clay Clinton and Manny Oz. We know that Manny met a tragic end, and that Leary is somehow responsible. He also goes on about his disappointments in his two sons, the gormless Clifford, and Clarence – whom he holds responsible for the end of his hockey career, when he tripped on Clarence’s truck and smashed his kneecap. Of course, any familiarity with Shakespeare’s Lear will likely encourage you to question the assignment of blame.
When Leary repeatedly speculates whether it’s possible to die of a broken heart – and though in the beginning he says it is not, as he learns more about his own life and those of his friends, he realizes that in may indeed be possible. When she recommended this book, Sarah said it had a “slam bang ending” and that’s true in fact, the ending is perfect, bringing back some of my favourite characters in the novel.
And while I did enjoy the book, I don’t think I would be its KIRBC advocate (or its Canada Reads one). But I think this may be mainly because it seemed like a watered down Barney’s Version to me (which DID, for the record, come 10 years after King Leary, and was a Canada Reads selection in 2004, but did not win). Same sort of protagonist, same questionable faculties, same cantankerous voice (though I think no one does cantankerous like Richler), same attempt to understand terrible actions in the past. Of course these two books weren’t up against one another last year, though I am sad to see it beat out Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage (a can-lit gem and favourite of mine). Just goes to show anything can happen. This year’s Canada Reads begins on March 2nd.