Readers familiar with the grim suburban landscape of Lee Henderson’s 2002 short-story collection The Broken Record Technique may be surprised to discover that the Saskatoon-born, Vancouver-dwelling author’s debut novel digs deep into the hoary ground of Canadian history. Set mostly during Vancouver’s early years – when the city, awaiting a CPR hookup to the rest of the country, was still a rowdy Wild West outpost – The Man Game is indeed a historical novel, but one that operates according to its own cracked logic, conjuring a city peopled by gruff woodsmen, indentured Chinese labourers, corrupt city officials, and rapacious, opium-addicted industrialists.
The invisible thread that connects all these people is the raunchy, subversive “man game.” Invented by 17-year-old ex-vaudeville actor Molly Erwagen, who arrives in Vancouver with her crippled husband Sammy amidst the great fire of 1886, the game combines the violence and histrionics of professional wrestling with the graceful acrobatics of ballroom dancing – “a waltz with a clap in the face.” Performed in the nude, the game becomes a wildly popular spectator sport among the city’s downtrodden – which is to say, nearly everyone.
Henderson’s tale skips among a myriad of characters, painting an oddly comic, often grotesque panorama of city life like something out of Bosch – or Pynchon, for that matter. Inevitably, just like one of the performers of the man game, Henderson does at times swing wide of the mark, faltering on the novel’s ambitious narrative sweep. Sammy’s ward, for example, a Snauq Indian who speaks in a wooden patois (“A deer go to hide in the water”), is about as subtle as the cigar-store variety. And Vancouver’s mythic past never really connects to the humdrum reality of the novel’s present-day narrator, who stumbles upon a cache of man game memorabilia in an east side basement.
But as pure spectacle, The Man Game is as brilliant and twisted as a funhouse mirror, and Henderson is a wildly seductive ringmaster.