Rocket Man

By Charles Foran
Penguin Canada, 166 pp.

Is it possible for a book to be compact, illuminating, admirable and yet also poetically, insistently too-much-overwritten?

Why, yes.  And here it is, Charles Foran’s retelling of the remarkable life and career of Maurice Richard – hockey legend, icon of yesteryear, champion of a people, forgotten hero, fulcrum of history, etc.  Brace yourselves.

“To skate fast and hard, pushing into that rasping wind, inhaling air so crisp the lungs first rejected it, was to be a wild, free creature, unafraid of the fierce climate – leaning into it, almost, anxious to be part of the land.”

Yes, we get the idea.   When he was a youngster the Rocket played shinny on outdoor ice in really cold weather.  It’s a cliché, but let’s put that aside to consider the construction of the sentence.  Try to read it aloud.  Your lungs will reject it.

It contains seven commas, five verbs, five adjectives and two adverbs.  It is a traffic pile-up of breathless exposition.

“Inhaling air so crisp the lungs first rejected it.”  That doesn’t work even as a metaphor.  A “wild, free creature”?  Please.  And what is the word “almost” doing there?  Are we to understand that the young Maurice Richard almost leaned into the rasping wind and the fierce climate?  Or was he only almost anxious to be part of the land?   Tentative or not, that’s one feral pantheist pre-teen rushing the net.

Maurice Richard is not actually a biography of Maurice Richard.  How could it be?  It’s only 166 pocket-size pages long, with big print and lots of white space.   Instead, it is part of something bigger than itself.  It is one slender volume in a commissioned series of similarly slender volumes, “Extraordinary Canadians,” published by Penguin.  It is a pretty good contribution to a pretty good idea.  It is an essay on Quebec and Canada told through the life of the greatest hockey player of his time.

The pretty good idea was the brainchild of series editor John Ralston Saul.  This is a nation continually replenishing itself with new arrivals who know the historical figures of their origin nations but can hardly be blamed if they know precious little about the lives of those who helped to shape the Canada that exists today.  And you don’t have to be recently arrived from Kinshasa to be hazy on the historical legacy of Gabriel Dumont or Nellie McClung.

An immigrant myself, arriving on the prairies just about to turn 10, I knew nothing about this place where my family had settled except that my accent was strange, I couldn’t play any of the important sports, and the last syllable of everyone’s surname seemed to be -chuk.  I vividly recall trying to become as Canadian as possible as fast as possible.

I must have been 11 or 12 when I came across a decade-old copy of Knights of the Air, a book for young readers that told the story of the Canadian biplane heroes of the First World War, Billy Bishop and Billy Barker.  It was part of a series called “Great Stories of Canada” published by MacMillan of Toronto.  It was 160 pages long.  And it was terrific.

It was about fighter pilots, for a start.  But in order to properly tell the story of Bishop and Barker the book had to fill me in on Rickenbacker and Von Richthofen.  It had to describe the air war in light of the trench war.  It had to make me understand the circumstances and reasons for the Great War, and Canada’s place in it.  In short, it used the lure of aerial dogfights to teach me something about this country.

Here, the didactic intent is identical.  Foran is the author most recently of the biography of Mordecai Richler, another iconic Montrealer.  Using the pretext of a book about a hockey swashbuckler, what he really aims to capture is what it was like to live in a Quebec that no longer exists: a province held in thrall to a reactionary church and the patronizing conservatism of Maurice Duplessis; where the vast majority of its citizens could feel openly disdained by an anglophone elite; a Quebec of humbled ambitions and chafing resentments.  In that Quebec, the broad shoulders of a hockey star who was every inch a man of the common stock could be freighted with the aspirations and frustrations of an entire people.

It wasn’t just that Richard scored goals and won championships.  It was what he endured in doing so and how he reacted.  In an era before helmets and visors, the game was extraordinarily violent.  Sticks were used as cudgels and their blades as scalpels.  Night after night Richard was the target of racial slurs and dirty hits.  But in addition to his explosive talents he also possessed a volcanic temper.  Provoked, he would lash out with his stick and fists.  He wasn’t above slapping a linesman if he thought a call was prejudiced.  More than once, police were called because of what he did to opponents.  His penalty minutes for 1954-55 were the highest in the league.  Off the ice, he was unaffected, demure, brooding perhaps but a loving husband and doting father.  The jacket cover portrait depicts him as he was on the ice – demonic.

This was the hero of what used to be called French Canada – a man who could not be cowed, no matter what they did to him.  So when he was suspended for the playoffs in 1955 by the imperious and unilingual NHL president Clarence Campbell (for a savage stick-swinging attack in which Richard also punched a linesman), the result was the infamous Richard Riot, a night of mayhem that was clearly about more than the vented outrage of Canadiens fans.  Coincidentally, Allen Ginsberg wrote the poem “Howl” that same year.

Foran reads Maurice Richard not simply as “a man of his times,” but as “a man who defined those times” – although that’s a lot to ask of a hockey player.  An emblem, a symbol, even a hero, is not the same as an architect.  Duplessis, Lévesque – these were men who defined their times, because they gave shape to the conditions under which their fellow citizens lived.  Richard retired from the game in 1960, nine months after Duplessis’ death.  He was not part of the Quiet Revolution.  By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Foran allows, the new insistent nationalism had little use for Richard, a relic of the days when Québécois could not aspire to be maîtres chez nous, much less authors of their own sovereignty.  Only later was he universally re-embraced as the adored and battle-scarred champion of his people.  Foran devotes the last chapter of the book to a wonderful account of the more than seven minute ovation – seven minutes! – that the 74-year-old Richard received on March 11, 1996, the last night of the old Montreal Forum.  When he died four years later, his body lay in state for two days on the ice surface of the new arena.

It’s no Knights of the Air, but this is a good book, a contribution in its own way to the national project.  That said, it could have used a less indulgent, more steely eyed editor.

It is full of sentences such as “He pushed naturally back against the wind …”  (Can you push unnaturally against the wind?)  It mentions not once but twice the Quebec church’s policy of revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradles), as though we might forget.  In a ridiculous passage comparing the Allied advance through occupied Europe to the Rocket’s hockey prowess – it reads like a Pathé newsreel – we are told that German V1s and V2s stopped raining down on England shortly before D-Day, when in fact the Vengeance weapons only began to be used after D-Day.

The trick in sports writing is to be sure to get the details right, and to keep the soaring prose just this side of purple.  Same goes for slender volumes with didactic intent and literary

Literary Review of Canada September 2011