Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Good Body

An inspired blend of hockey and Canlit that makes you wonder why such an obvious combo hasn't been tried before.

Bobby Bonaduce has laboured 20 years in the minors, the high point of his career being a single shift with the Maple Leafs. Or perhaps it's a low point, for in that short span he speared an opponent's spleen, got into three fights, pushed a linesman, spit at a fan, and knocked off a cop's hat.

Now with his career over, he's heading north to reconnect with his son Jason, who is playing hockey for UNB in Fredericton. He bluffs his way into the graduate program for creative writing in the hope that he'll be able to join the team.

This makes for some great comic moments on and off the ice. Bonaduce is predictably disdainful of works like "Lady Windermere's fucking Fan" and at sea in seminars like "Canadian Writers of the British Diaspora," the first hour of which is spent defining "Britain."

The writing has a distinctive rhythm and tone, and offers up some cool observations.

Hockey have the puck and you're lugging a bag of gold to market surrounded by fast bandits.


Reading her novel, he'd felt a shovel-the-snow kinship to Atwood, though her tough-shit sharpness made him nervous; and to Davies, though he was a stuffed shirt. But you could tell they'd both shovelled driveways.

Grad school

This was pretty good, gift as a verb, one of the better ones in the new language he'd been learning here. Other verbs he didn't like so much. Dialogue. Let's dialogue. Hell, why not get Sally and trialogue. Eight of us at Murray's lousy party, octaloguing away.

He went to the bathroom, to urine.

The ex-wife

Her eyes, her bright eyes. You looked in and saw she was smarter than you but also that this wasn't a bad thing. You could also see how she felt her body to be not quite hers, or not quite her. She could hold her body at arm's length. You could see she respected her body, but also that she saw it to be a kind of playground.

The book is filled with likeable characters save for a roommate with a withered arm. But perhaps Toby and Bobby are intended as doppelgangers, as both are afflicted with a physical disability that gives an ironic twist to the book's title. The image of Bonaduce driving around with a dead Christmas tree on the roof of his car is a telling one. It's clear from the start that the book can only end one way, but funny and sad make for a powerful combination.

Hockey Lit

A good companion to this book is a more recent one by Gaston, Midnight Hockey, a non-fiction work in which he mentions his own hockey career.

You can also check out this review by Angie Abdou. Her novel, The Bone Cage, was defended by former NHL enforcer, Georges Laraque, in the CBC's 2011 Canada Reads event.

Two other hockey novels I have enjoyed: King Leary and Salvage Kings, Ya!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bobby Fischer Goes to War

The True Story of How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time

The "Match of the Century" has already been the subject of many books, but this one has benefited by coming out more than 30 years after the event.

Thanks to the ending of the Cold War, the authors had access to sources of information formerly unavailable. They spoke to many of the key people involved (the main exception, of course, being Fischer himself), and have put together this compulsively readable account.

In 1972 the match caught the imagination of people in the West because it was seen as a Cold War battle enacted over a chessboard, with a lone American taking on the seemingly invincible Soviet chess collective.

The authors have a different view: "Far from being a simple ideological confrontation, the championship was played out on many levels, of which the chess itself was only one." Thus their focus is more on what happened away from the board. They begin by describing the two opponents: Fischer the "enfant terrible of chess," and Spassky something of a maverick himself, a patriotic Russian who felt little allegiance to the Soviet Union. He was not a party member, and once raised hackles by asking:

"Did Comrade Lenin suffer from syphilis?"

The authors explain how Fischer was able to dictate the terms of the match in a way that had never happened before. The event almost never took place because he demanded an unprecedented amount of money. British businessman Jim Slater came to the rescue by kicking in an additional $125,000. That got Fischer to Reykjavik, but the barrage of demands continued, some of them quite ridiculous:

The legs of the $1200 custom-built mahogany table should be shortened, the sumptuous chessboard changed, the front rows of seats removed, the camera towers pushed right back to the point where filming would be nigh impracticable, the lighting brighter –- no, less bright, no, brighter than that.

Opposing him was the likeable Spassky, who had never been beaten by Fischer, and who was perhaps more accommodating than he should have been. The cumulative effect of Fischer’s tantrums and ultimatums wore down the champion even before the match began. He also undermined his own efforts by quarrelling with his handlers and insisting on putting together his own team. He did not prepare as hard as he could have, and was surprised by Fischer's use of atypical openings, like the English.

When Spassky fell behind, the Soviets expressed concern that the Americans were using “non-sporting” means to gain an advantage – telepathy, chemicals, parapsychology, etc. Fischer’s chair was x-rayed, revealing a strange u-shaped tube inside it, which did not show up on a second x-ray. Was it a diabolical device? Or was it planted then removed by the KGB?

"I'm crushing him with brute force. Haaaaaa!"

Fischer is reported to have said this during game 3, which he won -- the first time he had ever beaten Spassky. In the end he won 7 games to Spassky's 3 (one of which Fischer forfeited by not showing up). The rest were draws, though "far from being dull, lazy games, several of these had been desperate, protracted bare-knuckle brawls, exciting if not always pretty."

The final score was 12.5 - 8.5 after 21 games. Fischer earned over $150,000, while Spassky took home $93,750, making him a wealthy man in the USSR.

Fischer never defended his title despite lucrative tournament offers. When he was due to meet Karpov, the winner of the next Candidates tournament, he issued a list of 179 demands. When FIDE refused to meet them all, he resigned his title. Many observers believed he was frightened of the chessboard. After winning the championship, he had nothing left to achieve and descended into "an abyss of unreality."

A few final quotes:

Reykjavik changed chess itself.

Spassky went to Reykjavik to celebrate chess. Fischer went to fight.

There never has been an era in modern chess during which one player
[Fischer] has so overshadowed all others.

A movie based on the book is in development.