Paul Quarrington’s novel King Leary is a funny, insightful look at the world of professional hockey in the early 20th century that would be enjoyable for fans of the sport or someone looking for a quick read.
It regained prominence in 2008 when the Rheostatics' Dave Bidini championed it for the CBC’s Canada Reads program. Bidini’s campaign saw King Leary become a best-seller and win the award 10 years after it first appeared on book shelves.
Narrated by Percival “King” Leary, one of the greatest professional hockey players to ever live, the story follows him as he travels from his retirement home to Toronto to shoot a ginger ale commercial with Duane Killebrew, the National Hockey League’s current scoring champion.
During the trip Leary recalls how he learned to play while at reformatory school and his complicated friendships with Clay Bors Clinton and Manfred Ozikean. He also touches on the fractious relationships with his sons Clarence and Clifford, as well as his wife Chloe and her sister Jane.
For the reader less familiar with hockey, King Leary will entertain with its amusing anecdotes and poignant moments. Quarrington is a masterful storyteller, subtly hinting at darkness that seeps into an otherwise humorous narrative.
At the same time, many of the characters are clearly based off other historical figures. Clinton is a mix of Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard. Killebrew is clearly meant to be Wayne Gretzky, with a passing reference to a player “down in Pittsburgh” that hints at Mario Lemieux.
Leary himself resembles a number of players, especially Toronto Maple Leafs great Francis Michael “King” Clancy.
The one disappointing aspect of the book is that although Quarrington is deft at the characterization of all of the main characters, supporting characters like Leary’s nurse Iain or the advertising executive Claire are painted with an extraordinarily broad brush. Their dialogue seems forced and unnecessarily flamboyant to the point that their characters are a distraction that clutters the page.
Aside from that, King Leary is a fine story. A quick reader could blow through Quarrington’s work in an afternoon, and would enjoy it regardless of their attachment to Canada’s favourite game. Definitely worth picking up.