Until a few weeks ago, I thought I knew hockey culture. Like many Canadians, I grew up playing the game, and put in my time watching Don Cherry in the 80s and 90s. And, like Derek in Jamie Fitzpatrick’s fine novel You Could Believe in Nothing, I still lace ‘em up once or twice a week. Then I went to a game in Ljubljana and found the familiar had gone strange. Cheerleaders in the aisles? Cordoned-off areas for home team/visiting team fans? No beer inside the arena? 5000 people gleefully hollering “Kurac!”—or “Dong!”—at the other team? Hockey culture has many faces.
A great hockey novel, You Could Believe in Nothing captures at least one of them. It never lags, there’s plenty of humour, the dialogues are crisp, and even when Fitzpatrick is rendering vulgar locker-room-style talk, it always sounds real, not faked or gratuitous (“Did you see Hiscock nail buddy this afternoon?….Fucking flattened him.” “He get thrown out?” “Yeah, but it was worth it. Got all of him.”).
I realize that might seem vague praise, but let’s face it: readers who don’t like the game are not going to rush out to buy this novel about a hard-drinking, recently-bachelored 41 year-old who plays beer league hockey in Newfoundland. Their loss.
A tough part of any hockey novel is capturing the game’s attraction without sounding like a beer commercial or a politician in trouble, and in this regard Fitzpatrick shines. He uses a brilliant conceit to half-explain, half-mock the game, along with the grown-up boys who play it and those who want to profit from it: a smarmy CBC guy wants to do a TV special on Derek’s team and somehow link it to the spirit of Newfoundland. Worse than that, this Allan guy from the CBC wants to be part of Derek’s team.
In one indicative moment, Allan brings a case of Canadian into the dressing-room and lets the camera roll for the b’ys. As the beer flows and the tongues loosen, no two teammates’ answers accord. The result is an insightful cacophony of broken dialogue through which Fitzpatrick speaks worlds about the usual themes of Canadian hockey blather:
‘So this is about fathers and sons?’ asked Allan. ‘Did he take you to the rink and stuff?’
‘Oh yes. Every Saturday morning, before daylight.’”
“‘Mom took me,’ said Murph. ‘Dad wanted no part of it.’
‘My dad coached all-star,’ said Kevin. ‘So I played for him for a year.’
‘That’s a great memory,’ said Allan.
‘Second year I got cut. Too slow.’
Allan consulted his notes.
Like any good interviewer (as CBCer Jamie Fitzpatrick clearly knows), Allan tries to coax and steer the hockey conversation to make it TV-ready:
‘So it’s a kind of escape? Is that what you mean?’
‘No,’ said Murph. ‘That’s not what I mean.’
Allan waited for him to continue. But Murph only shrugged and took a long drink.
Allan, of course, edits these mumblings and contradictory answers into a smooth, linear and comfortable hockey vignettte that eventually airs on Hockey Night in Canada. The result is a packaged lie that harbours an ounce of truth.
Unlike the slickly-edited version of the game served up by Allan – and unlike the stacks of hockey novels that finish a little too neatly – You Could Believe in Nothing keeps the rough edges by avoiding trite solutions to Derek’s life. Thankfully, Fitzpatrick’s novel avoids explaining what hockey means to Canada. For these reasons, Fitzpatrick’s novel (like that recent game in Ljubljana…) felt familiar yet strange. And there’s plenty of beer in his arena.