This is the second in a series of posts on the books chosen for this year’s Canada Reads on CBC Radio. The first post, on Icefields, can be found here.
All it is, is, you are at point one. You want to be at point two. The shortest distance, as every schoolboy knows, is a straight line, but there are no less than four big johnnies blocking the way. The secret is, don’t give a tinker’s cuss, just go, man. Just go.
— from “King Leary”, by Paul Quarrington
Right from the start, you have to wonder what kind of connection this book is going to have to the Shakespearian play of similar title. I had read King Lear in my grade twelve English class and was thoroughly bored with it, but luckily it turns out King Leary has little, if anything, to do with it. The story is about a mildly crazy old man, sure, but I doubt there’s anything deeper than that.
I got the impression while reading it that this is one of those stories that starts off slow and builds momentum as it goes, but looking back I find it hard to think of any critical point where it made that transition. Right from the start the narrator, King Leary himself, begins his story that slides seamlessly from present to past, from when he was a boy in the early 1900s through his stellar hockey career—King of the Ice, he was—to his present position in a nursing home bed.
At first it took a bit of effort to keep characters straight, but once I caught on they really began to build cohesive personas in a way that the characters of “Icefields” never managed to do. With no fewer than three or four characters with names beginning with a C (one of them with two names beginning with C used interchangeably), it took a while before I got who was who straight in my head. One thing I ended up enjoying was Leary’s simple vocabulary—not once did he say his son’s name without calling him gormley, and always gormely. I don’t even know what it means but I can get a pretty good picture of what Leary meant by it.
As the book progressed, the switches between time periods in the narrative became more and more blurred, which made for a very smooth if slightly hard to follow narrative. I think this was a great way of showing the progression of Leary’s character, as other characters around him feel apart in other ways. The narrative is clear and calculated in its confusion. Though I was never quite sure where the book was going, it was an interesting ride.