Finally finished King Leary by Paul Quarrington. For a funny book, it took me a while to really get into. More to the point, for a funny book, it wound up packing a punch that was both unfunny and surprisingly effective.
The more I think about the book, the more I like it and the more I realize the skill and care that went into it. In the last third of the book, I had many of those 'a-ha' moments where I would finally get where Quarrington was going with some of the asides and digressions. The only other Quarrington book I've ever read is Whale Music, a book I liked a lot. While this one took longer to grow on me, I will definitely be reading more of his work.
In thinking about the book, I realize more and more that I should have paid greater attention to its title, because much of the Bard's Lear can be found in this king of the ice. It's not a retelling by any stretch of the imagination, but the influence is there. These are tales of Kings without kingdoms. While Lear gives his up, Leary winds up outliving his, hanging onto a title that lost meaning years ago for most everyone but him.
King Leary is a tragicomedy born of hubris and selfishness. On one level, it revolves around a trio of friends from Ottawa who go on to careers in professional hockey. Leary and Manny Oz become players while Clay Bors Clinton becomes owner of the Toronto Leaves. Oz falls to alcohol and a broken heart. Clinton falls to the excesses of his lifestyle. All that's left of the trio is Leary, Indian name Loofweeda, stuck in an old age home with Blue Hermann, one-time hockey scribe and full-time boozehound.
On another level, the story follows Leary, his ghosts, Hermann and an orderly on a trip to Toronto for King Leary night at the Gardens. The next day, Leary is supposed to film a ginger ale commercial with the latest rising hockey star. The story bounces back and forth between the two narratives. The aged Leary is even prone to spells where the two tales intrude upon each other and overlap.
King Leary is a book about memory, family and the unpleasant decisions that we are faced with. It's also a book about hockey, for sure, but it’s more about the mythical side of hockey. It's about the sort of hockey that gets dragged out once a year on CBC so we can watch rosy-cheeked kids wobble around on outdoor rinks and pat ourselves on the back for loving such an odd spectacle. For all the mess that Leary's life becomes, he still believes in the game.
It's the people who take part in the game that are all messed up.