The Man Game by Lee Henderson (a review)

Last night, in the Memphis Grizzlies-Sacramento Kings NBA game, Vince Carter of the Grizzlies passed the ball into Courtney Lee with 0.3 seconds remaining on the clock and down by one point to win the game by one point. I won’t say more than that, because words can’t do it justice. The play must be seen to be believed. And yet it did actually happen and that’s what made it great. If you put that play in a novel… yawn. One of the draws of sports is witnessing the impossible. The major draw of fiction is realism. And that is true in both Realism and Fantasy fiction. A jaw-dropping play in a real life sporting event is great. A jaw-dropping play in a fictional sporting event is worthless and lazy.

Consider Quidditch. To my mind, the Quidditch scenes are the most boring scenes in all of the Harry Potter books, and not just because it’s a stupid game. The scenes also tell us little about the characters themselves. More important things happen in the stands of Qudditch games than on the pitch. Which brings me to the Man Game (Penguin Canada, 2008), a book about a fictional sport which has a lot in common with Quidditch in that the man game scenes are the least compelling scenes in an otherwise great book. In reality, the titular “man game” is a MacGuffin—”an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” The Man Game is really about the birth of the city of Vancouver, which is why I was interested in it in the first place. I’ve decided that I am going to read and review a number of books that take place in this neighbourhood and its surrounding areas (my first entry being here). The Man Game qualifies because, even though it takes place in 1886-1887, all the streets are familiar to me on my daily walks. Also, even though it takes place in 1886-1887, several of the themes and motifs reflect how little the neighbourhood has changed in 130 years.

the man game

Though there are enough characters to warrant a two page cast list before the first chapter, the story centers on Molly Erwagen, the wife of a quadriplegic bookkeeper who, with her husband, settle in Vancouver just after the fire of 1886. Molly is young, intelligent, and apparently so beautiful that she reduces almost every man to stammering. She is able to harness her power over men in a way as to get them to do her bidding. And though some with that power might use it to gain wealth or some other svengali-like motives, Molly decides she wants to use it to create the man game—a balletic martial art with esoteric rules that captures the attention of the bored but gambling-loving public of pioneer Vancouver. Again, the man game should not distract one from The Man Game, for despite the occasionally tedious descriptions of these moves, they do not take much from the real action, which is between the characters themselves.

The narrative is framed and occasionally interrupted by the character Kat and his friend Minna, who are our Virgilian guides to the inferno of early Vancouver. They happen upon a man game in behind a Vancouver special in modern East Van and discover the game as we do. While not exactly superfluous to the novel, I wouldn’t say they are really necessary to enjoy the story. They don’t take anything away, though, either.

When I was thinking about the similarities between quidditch and the man game (the rules are not at all the same, but they remind me of each other nonetheless) I thought about how the pioneer Vancouver of Henderson’s book reminded me of Hogwarts, the fabled school that Harry Potter attends. Like Hogwarts, Vancouver is littered with memorable characters (some legendary in the context of the novel) who work for competing parties, partake in political intrigue, and hide out in tunnels. There is also some esoterica particular to the novel (man game moves, complete with sketches as opposed to potions and spells).

I don’t want to give the impression that The Man Game is really like Harry Potter. I’m probably one of the few who would think that. But what kept me turning the very many pages was similar to why I kept with Harry Potter, too. Except that The Man Game is very much an adult novel with adult themes and adult language. The above mentioned tunnels connected brothels and opium dens to other establishments. And when I say adult language I mean both kinds of adult language. Some of the sentences are quite inventive and would disqualify the book from the simple page turning of a YA book. I opened the book at random to find this typical description: “Hoss was a potato with bulky arms and a seaman’s complexion, pale pink and burnt, with a loaf in his belly as inert as a giant wad of bread dough.” There are others and had I not borrowed this copy from the library I would have made note of them in the margins. But there is also adult language in Henderson’s liberal and, perhaps, anachronistic use of the participle “fucking,” which would disqualify it as children’s literature even if it weren’t for the drugs, viscera, and characters like “the whore without a face.”

What will intrigue those interested in Vancouver in particular are those themes that won’t go away. Beyond prostitution and drugs, Henderson vividly portrays the city as once and always concerned with Chinese immigration affecting the labour and real estate markets. Of course, there is also the cultural and physical displacement of native peoples from their inherited land. And though the characters seem unaffected by it, the narrator occasionally points out the age and size of the trees that dominated the landscape before the logging concerns cut them down for profit and to make way for the development of this new town on the edge of civilization. But it isn’t a message book. Nor should it interest only those who are familiar with Vancouver and its problems and virtues. If you like beautifully written books with interesting characters and a fun plot to boot, you should search for The Man Game.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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