Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finnie Walsh

Bad things happen in this book – a drowning, a severed arm, a jugular nicked by a skate blade, a fight in which an eye is lost. At the heart of it all is Finnie Walsh, decent, patient, loyal, and best friend of the narrator, Paul.

Hockey is the bond that draws them together. Finnie is a gifted goalie and Paul (born on the same day as the last game of the 1972 Summit Series and named after the player who scored the winning goal) is a stay-at-home defenceman.

They grow up playing on the same teams, but their choice of heroes, Bill Barilko and Pelle Lindberg, hints at future misfortune. Against all odds they make it to the NHL, but their pro careers are short. One ends in a surprisingly original on-ice brawl, and the other (less believably) during overtime in the seventh game of a Stanley Cup final.

Hockey, however, occupies less of the book than this brief summary suggests. There are no puck bunnies or locker-room scenes, and the NHL portion takes up only a few pages. It's more about Finnie's relationship with Paul's working-class family, which includes an eccentric father and a daughter with the gift of precognition. Finnie understands them better than Paul does and goes to great lengths to protect them. Finnie's own family is wealthy but consists of a distant father and some brutal older brothers.

What makes the book work is its calm measured tone. The brevity (165 pages) and lean prose make it readable in a single sitting. The book was short-listed for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. It has gone through several printings, but the cover of this one is easily the most attractive.

The author’s third novel is the much celebrated The Cellist of Sarajevo.