Written by François Barcelo, translated by Peter McCambridge — The National Hockey League season was supposed to begin last week. However the puck won’t be dropping, teeth won’t be loosened, and nobody’s getting slammed into the boards just yet. A dispute is raging over revenue, between the owners of the clubs, and the players. So this 100-page noir novella from one of French Canada’s most lauded authors seems an apt one to review. At the moment plenty of our Canadian readers must hate hockey, or at least those governing the sport, as it seems there won’t be a 2012-13 season.
Antoine Vachon hates hockey too. He wasn’t good at it as a kid, which tends to marginalise you if you live in the province of Quebec, where nearly everyone else absolutely loves the sport. Antoine has carried on regardless, but his dilemma comes via a phone call from the man who runs minor hockey in Saint-Zéphyrin and its environs. The coach of the bantam team which Antoine’s son Jonathan plays on has been murdered and nobody else is available to stand behind the bench for the team’s away trip facing the Morinville Loons.
Reluctantly he accepts, wondering how and why the coach died, and boards the bus for the three hour ride into the Quebec hinterland. He’s shown little to no interest in his son’s hockey thusfar, doesn’t know any of the players, nor even what the Z on their jersey stands for. They only asked him to do it as he’s the only dad who’s unemployed, having lost his job at the General Motors dealership.
Our narrator is sardonic, witty and also highly annoying. Typical of noir fiction, he’s one of those characters with an incredible ability to deceive himself – in fact, he’s a very deluded individual. He’s been single the last year or two, having been caught cheating on Jonathan’s mother Colombe. Now he lives in a village just outside Saint-Zéphyrin, whose only claim to fame is a giant sheetmetal effigy of a cow standing on the hilltop.
The game itself goes badly for the Zs until coach Antoine gets a game misconduct for jumping comedically onto the ice during a brawl. His team stand up for Kim Nguyen, their Vietnamese star player, who’s been dumped over the boards. Following his ejection they turn around a 3-1 defecit and win 6-4. However there’s a strange atmosphere amongst the players and things get even more bizarre when they arrive at the motel to stay the night before heading home.
Antoine begins to suspect that Jonathan, Kim and other boys were sexually abused by the murdered coach, and quickly reaches his own conclusions about who killed the man. His imagination goes into overdrive, and the book grows both darker and funnier with each page you turn, and each crazy notion he runs with. Sometimes his reasoning is quite compelling, but then he drifts into pure fantasy, he frequently talking at cross-purposes to fellow characters including Jonathan, his ex-wife Colombe and eventually the police.
It turns out, this short book isn’t about hockey at all. It’s not even about who killed the coach. It’s more to do with the darker side of human nature – from basic matters of honesty and integrity through to child abuse, sexism, racism and murder – all delivered via an annoying, funny and deeply flawed character. Canadian readers will enjoy this bit of noir woven into the fabric of Quebec life, and non-Canadians may feel endeared to that local flavour. The ending is a real eye-opener, but we won’t spoil that for you. What we will say, however, is that while this is an excellently crafted story, it’s currently far too expensive. The paperback is £12.50, and even on Kindle it’s nearly £8.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars