Fight club

Vancouver's Lee Henderson wrestles with history in his new novel The Man Game

Vancouver's Lee Henderson wrestles with history in his new novel The Man Game

Vancouver author Lee Henderson. ((Bryan McBurney/Penguin Group Canada) )

The Man Game, Vancouver author Lee Henderson's much-anticipated first novel, must be one of the few books to have sprung from a series of classroom doodles. While his peers in the University of British Columbia's creative-writing program workshopped their latest prose, Henderson sketched fictitious wrestling moves.

"I didn't always write the best comments for people," he admits. "A lot of people received their stories back with a bunch of naked men drawn on them. I just thought it was kind of funny."

You have to wonder whether his classmates saw the humour in it, too – of casually drawn wrestling holds (with names like Rook Takes Pawn, The Pisk or Dip the Schnitzel) animating their early drafts. As it turns out, Henderson had been experimenting with his own ideas for a story. "I wanted something odd," he explains. "I wanted an impossible centre to a story. Something that seemed beyond unlikely."

With The Man Game, Henderson has taken a very different tack. Can you get more uncool than early Vancouver history?

More than nine years later, he's produced just that: a sprawling, unshackled tale about late 19th century Vancouver, involving eclectic – and often unshaven, illiberal or opium-addled – inhabitants and a bizarre spectator sport known as "the man game." The book is a 513-page mash-up of fiction and fact, past and present, words and images (Henderson included 48 of his wrestling sketches). Physically, the book feels like a frontier artifact, thanks to Hands Design and New York artist Javier Piñón, while the promo material (a website and trailer) gives it an infectious, Wild West buzz.

Buzz is something we might have expected from the 33-year-old Henderson, whose award-winning debut, the 2002 short-story collection Broken Record Technique, pegged him as one of CanLit's most promising talents. Along with Vancouver authors like Kevin Chong, Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon, Henderson was part of the UBC creative writing program's highly touted millennial class. Broken Record Technique was on its quirky, mildly experimental fringe. Henderson's stories included a talking marmot, a teen named Spiro Chete (who raises bullfrogs in his basement) or a character hooked on Junior Mints. Technique is a frisky, funny book, both smart and appealing. It's also very cool, from the cartoon cover art to the odd-duck acknowledgments (a footnoted list).

(Penguin Group Canada)

With The Man Game, however, Henderson has taken a very different tack. Can you get more uncool than early Vancouver history? Lumberjack sports, outpost bordellos and one horse towns aren't, as far as I know, back in fashion.

"I didn't want to just write about my friends and my scene and people playing in little bands. I've read those books; I'm not interested in that kind of book," he explains in a recent phone interview from Saskatoon, during a summertime trip back to the city he grew up in.

Henderson's ambition was clear: to confront the historical novel, that cornerstone of Canadian literature. "I thought there was another kind of historical novel that might speak to people in a different way. And that's what I was looking for. So I was looking at the history of writing to see what I could do with that, not just, 'What's a good story?' or 'What would be cool to write about?' I was thinking about writing literature."

The Man Game revolves around Molly Erwagen, a one-time vaudevillian, and her husband, Samuel, an accountant. They're transplanted Torontonians who arrive in Vancouver in 1886, the year of the city's incorporation and also its great fire. Henderson's historical Vancouver is a hodgepodge of underclass labourers, put-upon Chinese immigrants, mill owners and bartenders. A race riot looms. Linking everything together is the man game, a sport Molly creates with two "exiled" lumberjacks named Pisk and Litz. Part professional wrestling, part high-society dance, the man game is played in the nude, a feral mixture of viciousness and beauty.

Henderson saw this fictitious sport as a way for Vancouverites "to let off some steam," an outlet for residents' pent-up frustrations. Henderson's research showed him "that there was a reason why this game could exist" in pioneer Vancouver. A few months after beginning the book in the autumn of 1999, Henderson came across a real-life fight club near the docks in New Westminster, B.C., something he would later write about in the Vancouver Sun.

Affirmation of this kind was crucial. Henderson worked on The Man Game for eight years and says he "finished" it 10 times. As the novel became "longer and weirder," doubt began to set in. After completing a 250-page opening act in 2003, Henderson became despondent and threw nearly the entire draft away. "That's basically a 1,000-page book," he remembers thinking, "and it's about a man game . . . in Vancouver . . . and no one's going to want to read this."

Through it all, Henderson found great relief, and inspiration, in his other professional interests. He wrote about art for a number of publications (he's a contributing editor at Border Crossings, the Winnipeg cultural quarterly). He drew. (Henderson had once considered becoming an animator, and his work appears in a Sonic Youth video.) He also curated art shows (Attaché Gallery) and improvised music events (Father Zosima Presents).

Henderson's book includes sketches of his fictional "man game." ((Penguin Group Canada) )

And he read – a lot. Talking about books is second nature to Henderson. When you ask him about The Man Game's models, he provides a list: Cormac McCarthy, to start, and then David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), Robert Kroetsch (The Studhorse Man) and Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String). He's a compulsive, but also careful reader – referencing Anna Karenina (to solve specific writerly problems), Nick Tosches's book on Sonny Liston (for sports style) and even rap banter (for some of the novel's hybrid language).

Although The Man Game utilizes a variety of literary techniques, it is ultimately a portrait of a lost and fanciful city. After setting the story in early Vancouver, Henderson threw himself into the research. For two years he worked the city's libraries and archives, digging up obscurities and assimilating mounds of primary sources. The books of J.S. Matthews, who chronicled life in the rugged coastal town, were indispensable. Henderson, the transplanted prairie boy, soon became a walking encyclopedia of tidbits from Vancouver's past.

"I love the city, and was inspired to move here because of what I saw coming out of it," he says, calling up 1994, the year he moved west. Henderson was 19 when he arrived, an admirer of Vancouver musicians (Superconductor) and artists (Jeff Wall) and the city's "sense of freedom," its "real sense of autonomy from the rest of Canada." Looking back, he says, "you could almost do whatever you wanted."

Henderson now calls Strathcona, Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood, home. His neighbours include 84-year-old musician-artist-writer Al Neil and author Daphne Marlatt, and his apartment is just around the corner from the house Jimi Hendrix's grandmother lived in for nearly 20 years.

While he defers to those who've written about Vancouver before – from Ethel Wilson to George Bowering to Michael Turner – Henderson knows its literary history is still young.

"[Vancouver's] identity is still in some ways up for grabs," he says. "I could place myself there without having to feel like I was inhabiting a place that had already been road mapped."

Greg Buium is a writer based in Vancouver.

Vancouver City Police are seen in front of old City Hall and Police Station in 1903. Jail warden John Clough is seated on the far right. ((Major Matthews collection, courtesy City of Vancouver Archives))

10.5 interesting items of historical Vancouver trivia learned during research for The Man Game

By Lee Henderson

1. Two months after being officially named the city of Vancouver in 1886, the entire town burned to the ground thanks to a routine slash and burn that got out of hand. The fire was so hot it melted fob watches and metal signage and turned folks to ash in seconds flat.

2. John Clough lived on a squat in what is now Stanley Park, and was the local lamplighter, poundkeeper and town drunk. Clough was put in jail so many times for being drunk the police finally made him jail warden. He was put in charge of the chain gang as well.

3. "Chinook jargon," the old slang trade language used along the North Pacific Coast between Salish, Whites, Chinese and others who needed a common tongue to do business. With over a thousand words, highlights of chinook jargon include "chickamin," which means money, and "eena," which means beaver.

4. A herd of wild cattle roamed Stanley Park, before it was called Stanley Park, and were eventually all hunted down and shot by government men.

5. The Coast Salish people lived here for more than 5,000 years. They lived relatively peaceful and harmonious lives with their neighbours and natural surroundings. The first white child they ever saw was in 1873. The baby was H.O. Alexander, first son of R.H. Alexander, manager of Hastings Sawmill.

6. There were trees in Vancouver as tall and taller than the towering redwoods in Oregon, and wide enough (some were over 50 feet around) that a stump could double as a dancefloor at a New Year's Eve party in 1886.

7. Opium was a legal and bustling enterprise for the debt-ridden Chinese immigrant community in Vancouver. That is, until 1908, when that all came to a halt after Mackenzie King, then the federal deputy minister of labour, successfully pushed for a federal law prohibiting the Chinese from selling or manufacturing opium. This was inspired by his visit to Vancouver a year earlier to witness the results of the anti-Asian labour riots. He returned to Toronto with anti-Asian horror stories that helped the country enact federal laws based entirely on racial prejudice, in order to help him secure the western vote.

8. The rivers were so loaded with salmon you could catch them with your bare hands.

9. Elk once roamed Vancouver, long before the white men laid eyes on the place.

10. Chester S. Rollston, a native of Vancouver and a clerk at a pioneer hardware store on Cordova Street in the early 1900s, invented the modern clothesline.

10.5. According to J.S. Matthews — Vancouver's first historian, photographer, archivist and gas station owner — Chester Rollston's father, J.C. Rollston, was the first gas station attendant in the world ... at J.S. Matthews' own gas station.