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On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It

by Mordecai Richler

The British writer Cyril Connolly warned that “All excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, are doomed to disappointment. To put our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion.”

But how is it then that I still divide prospective friends into two camps, those who have and those who haven’t yet read Connolly’s brilliant mish-mash of literary criticism, memoir, and philosophical nuggets, The Unquiet Grave? And who today bothers with Connolly’s one contribution to seemingly lasting literature, his novel The Rock Pool?

Not that Mordecai Richler has to worry about his various forays into non-fiction outliving his novels. Even if those busy custodians of McCanlit, the university professors, one day decide that Duddy is too much a white Eurocentric male for the syllabus any longer, the majority of Richler’s fictional oeuvre will survive the old-fashioned way: people will continue to read him for pleasure. And reread him.

But it’s not just the novels that will endure. Whether describing writing for the movies, following the fate of his beloved Montreal Canadiens, or demonstrating why he’s the best book reviewer this country has ever had (although, lamentably, he doesn’t do reviews anymore), Richler is consistently smart and funny, using language with a care and exactitude that most poets should envy.

Which means that although I’ve always considered a pool table a waste of barroom space, Richler’s latest foray into non-fiction, On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It, is a joy. Not a major work, by any means – even at just over 200 pages it seems at times like a magazine article that someone thought might do double duty as a book – but clever and funny and entertaining enough that it reads better than most of this or last season’s must-read fiction. Give me Richler on the beauty of a bank shot over one more novel about one more guy looking out his window having one more epiphany.

On Snooker starts and finishes autobiographically. The book begins by chronicling Richler’s youth as both a school-ditching pool-hustler wannabe at Montreal’s Rachel Pool Hall and a lifetime sports fanatic in general, then segues into a brief history of snooker before turning to its main subject, the time he spent covering a recent WPBSA Embassy World Championship. He concludes with a brief examination of why so many writers, particularly North American writers, are fixated on sports.

Even the seasoned snooker follower will probably enjoy the autobiographical sections best. The snooker world does have its fair share of local colour – the belligerent but groupie-hounded Ronnie (The Rocket) O’Sullivan, for example, whose father, before being convicted of murder, was a pornography entrepreneur (“Ron’s the name, porn’s the game”). Richler also includes the case histories of a couple of Canadians, Alex (The Hurricane) Higgins and Cliff (The Grinder) Thorburn, who each made their Canuck mark on the Brit-dominated sport before being busted and banished for drug use.

But as Richler points out, Yogi Berra and Muhammad Ali and a few others aside, athletes are essentially beautiful machines whose opinions, even on sports-related matters, are rarely worth hearing. Commenting on his time spent with Canada’s one and only Great One, Richler writes, “Gretzky, his immense skill undeniable, has to be one of the most boring men I ever met, inclined to talk about himself in the third person. To come clean, neither was the far more appealing Stephen Hendry [arguably the greatest snooker player ever] the wittiest of luncheon companions. But, to be fair, Gore Vidal hasn’t registered 50 hat tricks, and neither has he ever scored a maximum [snooker’s ultimate play].”

But maybe the athlete and the artist aren’t all that different after all.

“I always start out pledged to a dream of perfection, a novel that will be free of clunky sentences or passages forced in the hothouse, but it’s never the case. Each novel is a failure of sorts…. But if Higgins [the Irish Masters Champion] could achieve perfection, maybe, next time out, I could too.”
Well, not this time – maybe none of us ever do. Still, Richler at less than perfect beats any other writer in this country’s best nine times out of 10. And you don’t need to play the horses to know that odds even half that good don’t come along very often.