Sports journalism is not a bad apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist. It is, at its best, an oddly monastic discipline, requiring that the reporter pare down the chaotic, fractal whirl of a game’s events into clear, accessible prose. While all too often studded with mind-numbing cliché’s and unnecessary statistics, sports journalism at its best offers tight, lucid sentences, compelling metaphors and a moving, almost numinous evocation of the sense of excitement and awe both athletes and fans bring to the playing field, pool or ice rink.
Jamie Fitzpatrick’s debut novel, You Could Believe in Nothing, is a case in point. Fitzpatrick, currently a CBC Radio host and producer in St. John’s, began his career as a sports reporter and currently writes hockey columns online. His award-winning first novel is a fast-moving, unsentimental look at amateur hockey, masculinity, mid-life crisis, drink, drugs and family secrets. Despite this rather daunting and joyless list of topics, which in less skillful hands would sound like outtakes from a bad Oprah, the book itself is brisk, engaging and, in the end, very moving, an altogether impressive first effort
Derek, Fitzpatrick’s protagonist, is a 41-year-old adrift in St. John’s, awash in currents of beer and vague remorse, who spends a dank, chilly season playing recreation-league hockey, binge drinking, obsessing about his absent girlfriend Nicole and about the tangle of squalid family secrets uncovered when his half-brother returns to town and his father, an aging disc jockey for a golden oldies radio show, faces charges of sexual and financial misconduct.
All of this Jerry Springer-like family drama is played out against a meticulously portrayed backdrop of St. John’s in a cold, dark season. Hockey arenas, dispiriting bars and icy streets are presented in grimed, gritty detail. Derek’s vague unease about why Nicole has left him, and why he can’t get a handle on the truth behind his family’s baffling history, are played out in the dim glow from a computer screen as he surfs for porn and videos of old hockey games like some lumpenized, 21st-century mystic chasing enlightenment in the dark. Fitzpatrick’s gift for observing and reproducing the profane poetry in the way men talk with each other manages to redeem and transfigure this unpromising material.
Unlike many writers who focus on sports and male bonding, Fitzpatrick is perfectly capable of creating rounded, complex female characters. Derek’s sister Cynthia and Kelly, an old lover who veers back into his life for a while, for example, are as human and believable as Derek or his hockey-team accomplices. The one place that the author’s otherwise pitch-perfect rendering of women fails him is in the novel’s subplot about a TV documentary on Derek’s team. Although the character of the preening, self-important TV reporter is searingly funny (and raises questions about whether St. John’s TV viewers or Fitzpatrick’s colleagues at the CBC will recognize a real-life original), Fitzpatrick’s attempt to extend the satire by creating an angry feminist newspaper columnist who attacks the show and the team is surprisingly clumsy and clichéd. That said, You Could Believe In Nothing is a deft and rewarding first effort, almost as good as Mark Jarman’s sublime Salvage King, Yah!, which remains, for my money, one of the best sports-themed novels ever written in Canada.
Delighted readers of You Could Believe in Nothing will be impatient for the next time this skillful new Canadian novelist steps out onto the ice.
Tom Sandborn is a journalist and activist in Vancouver. He can barely skate backward and has never mastered the holy game of hockey.