John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


Book Review – Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version accomplishes a feat that most Canadian literature can’t: it transcends its genre and stands on its own as an enjoyable read.

It’s a rare trick for a Canadian author, but Mordecai Richler is one of the greats. Barney’s Version is an enthralling and entertaining book that sheds so many of the conventions that other Canadian authors seem to love.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy CanLit. As a Canadian Studies major in my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto I’ve read my fair share of Canadian fiction. Probably your fair share too.  But what should simply be a geographic category has built up an almost immobilizing amount of clichés that detracts from what should be a vibrant literary scene.

Seriously, most CanLit should come with a check list. Small, rural town with a main street of boarded up store fronts. A dark family secret, preferably involving sexual deviancy. Backhanded compliments towards the British and Americans that have a hint of jealousy. Rueful musings about life and history throughout the story.

Sometimes these characteristics are handled with aplomb, like Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, but more often than not they create a kind of narrative rust that slows the plots of a lot of Canadian fiction.

However, Richler’s Bildungsroman/murder mystery/pseudo memoir as told by Barney Panofsky – and annotated by his son Michael – eschews most of these conventions. It even mocks them in the form of Terry McIvor, the elder Panofsky’s nemesis.

This self-awareness makes this the best book of Richler’s career.

Barney’s Version is set in 1995, as Quebec is preparing for its referendum on sovereignty. Barney, the main narrator, is coming to grips with the disappearance of the Montreal he knew and loved as well as his own personal decline as his body and memory begin to fail him.

The memoir is both a reaction to the unravelling of the world around him as well as a response to the sharp criticisms in McIvor’s autobiography and a final attempt at clearing his name in the disappearance – and probable murder – of his best friend, Boogie Moscovitch.

Planted firmly in the Richlerverse, with characters from earlier novels like the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Saint Urbain’s Horseman and Solomon Gursky Was Here appearing throughout, Barney’s Version is Richler’s masterpiece of narrative storytelling and character development.

What’s most impressive is that the book is incredibly clever without ever getting showy or cute. Richler’s sharp use of an unreliable narrator – arguably two depending on how much faith you want to place in Michael Panofsky’s footnotes – is sharp and really stretches out the murder mystery until the very last page of the book.

Barney’s Version is well worth checking out, whether you’re familiar with CanLit or not. It is Mordecai Richler at the top of his game, pushing the narrative envelope while breaking new ground for a Canadian author, making him a singular literary figure in Canadian culture.


Trade deadline day is over-rated

Although I’m still a young pup in this sports journalism game, most of my friends and family, as well as people following me on Twitter, have often ask me for my opinion on major events in sports.

As you can imagine, I took lots of questions about the National Hockey League’s trade deadline. People wanted to know about what deals I thought would happen and how I felt about the moves teams made.

You know what? I didn’t think much of it at all. It’s a boring, media-generated event that is over-hyped.

This wasn’t always the case. I remember being an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and stopping people on the street to ask if they’d heard what the latest trade was and congregating with friends between classes to talk about the latest move.

Back then, big names were thrown around. I remember the palpable sense of excitement when the Toronto Maple Leafs landed Owen Nolan in 2003. I also remember the sense of regret and foreboding when the Leafs missed out on Rob Blake in 2001.

The difference between then and now is that the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement has instituted a salary cap (as well as a minimum) for all teams. Adding a big ticket player destroys any franchise’s budget. This cap makes crazy, last minute moves virtually impossible.

Yes, there have been some major moves made close to or on the deadline like Marian Hossa joining the Pittsburgh Penguins in Feb. 2008 or this year’s trade of Ilya Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers to the New Jersey Devils. But these deals were motivated by teams trying to dump expiring contracts before the free agents walked away for nothing. They are very temporary, and took months to negotiate.

Instead of the free-wheeling desperation deals of yore, trade deadline day consists of a gaggle of analysts trying to fill air time between commercials for hours on end.

I watched TSN’s coverage, which spent several segments introducing the many commentators they’d employed for the day. After nearly three hours of coverage they began to break some news, like the thrilling trades of Derek Morris for a fourth round pick in 2011 or Martin Skoula (being traded by a team he never played with) for a fifth round pick. Yawn.

If you really want to see exciting personnel moves in the NHL, wait for free agency to open up in the summer. That’s where teams are made in this day and age, not at the trade deadline. No, now the last day of the deal-making season is the home of third line centres and depth defencemen.


How I fell in love with lacrosse

Bob "Whipper" Watson played a key role in my growth as a lacrosse fan.

I can still remember the exact moment when I fell in love with lacrosse. My godfather had given me tickets to the Toronto Rock as a Christmas present. They were the newest team in the National Lacrosse League, having played in Hamilton the previous season as the Ontario Raiders, and this was their home opener.

I’d heard of lacrosse, but never seen it played. But, hey, it was at Maple Leaf Gardens, a treat by itself. It was easy to persuade my friend Ruben to come along.

As the fourth quarter wound down, Toronto’s goaltender Bob “Whipper” Watson stopped a shot and came out of his crease to pass to a streaking “Speedin’” Stevie Toll. As Watson released the ball, one of the Buffalo Bandits cross-checked him in the back of the head and knocked him out cold.

I seem to remember Toll scoring on the play, but I was distracted by the mayhem that exploded around me.

As players paired off to fight, the crowd chanted “BUFFALO SUCKS”. The offending player got free of his dance partner (possibly after knocking him out as well) and ran around the floor, giving the finger to the crowd. Fans tried to climb over the boards to get at him while the referees and arena security tried to gain control of the situation.

It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.

Ruben and I didn’t know it at the time, but we were watching the birth of a dynasty. The Rock would win the championship that year, and win another four in the next five years. They’d win their division from the team’s inception in 1999 and every year after that until 2005.

For a championship starved city like Toronto, it was incredible.

Ruben and I didn’t understand half of what was going on in that first game, but sitting in the Reds of Maple Leaf Gardens we decided that we were going to pick up the sport.

We went to more games that season and got a small petition together to start a team at our high school. Unfortunately, the head gym teacher told us that he just didn’t have the staff to coach another team and our dreams were dashed.

In my second year at the University of Toronto I ended up playing a few minutes with the varsity team, but I was much too late to the sport to be any good. The next year I became an assistant coach, and became more and more involved in the administration of the game.

I watched as many games as I could, read magazine and internet articles, played intramurals and gradually began to understand the Xs and Os of lacrosse.

Eventually, I became the Director of Communications for the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association and interned with the Toronto Nationals, a professional field team that plays in Major League Lacrosse. I’ve been lucky enough to meet greats like Gary Gait, Colin Doyle and Dan Dawson, as well as interview Paul Gait and the legendary Syracuse University coach Roy Simmons Jr.

Even though I'm relatively new to the sport, everyone I've ever met in the lacrosse world has been nothing but kind, friendly, and accommodating. It's the most accessible professional sport that I can think of, with fast action, cheap tickets and athletes that the average fan can relate to. In a crowded sports market like Toronto, there's nothing like the Nationals or Rock.

Although I’ve written about lacrosse extensively and seen a lot of the behind-the-scenes action of pro teams, I’ll always be a fan first. That’s why I’m so glad that I’ve been able to watch all of the Rock’s televised games this winter. Lacrosse has a spot in my heart that no other sport will ever be able to occupy.