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March 18, 2010

Finnie Walsh by Steven Galloway

This seems to be the second in a series of reviews of long-ago first novels reissued when writer strikes it big with a later book. I read Steven Galloway’s acclaimed The Cellist of Serajevo last year, and found it to be the most nuanced, interesting book about war I’ve ever encountered. And since Galloway had me obsessed with a book about a sniper (unlikely, I know), I decided his first novel about hockey Finnie Walsh was even worth a go.

The only real problem with Finnie Walsh is that it’s not A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’m not sure if it wanted to be, if it’s a homage or just an incredibly resonant echo, but the similarities between these two books are overwhelming. Owen has certainly inspired his share of devotees, and the more evangelical among them might struggle to accept Finnie for himself, but if you’re like me and found Irving’s book charming but way too long, you’ll probably manage to do so.

The book is narrated by Paul Woodward, son of a mill-worker who throws a wrench into the social order when he becomes friends with the mill-owner’s son. When the book begins, Paul and Finnie are seven years old, on the cusp of beginning their great hockey adventures and taking turns smashing the puck against Paul’s garage door. This creates a racket that keeps Paul’s father from sleeping properly that afternoon, so that he ends up nodding off on his job at the mill on the night shift, and losing his arm to the blades of a saw.

Finnie Walsh, perceptive beyond his years, feels responsible for the accident, and becomes closely bound with the Woodward family in order to atone for what happened. Over the next fifteen years, his fate and theirs are intertwined, and the narrative follows the cast of characters– among them, the oddly charismatic Finnie, Paul’s father (who spends those fifteen years educating himself by reading every issue of National Geographic from its inception), Paul’s sister strange sister Louise and his even stranger sister Sarah (who wears a lifejacket everywhere, and sees the future reflected by her bedside lamp). The narrative itself is somewhat random, often tangential, but these characters are so lovingly rendered that the story is compelling.

In the background throughout, there is hockey. Both Finnie and Paul follow the sport, and the narrative is punctuated by its zeitgeist– the ascent of Wayne Gretzky and then his trade to the LA Kings in particular, and many other players that I’d never heard of before but Galloway spins the stories so they’re epic heroes. Both boys play hockey as well– Finnie is a goalie, and Paul plays defense, and they move up through the ranks in local hockey until they’re both drafted into the NHL when they finish high school. (Which I think is a bit unlikely, no? Or rather, the remarkable nature of it is not made incredibly evident. It’s as though this is all just part of a natural progression, but maybe for some players it is?)

The novel begins, “Finnie Walsh will forever remain in my daily thoughts, not only because of the shocking circumstances of his absurd demise, but because he managed to misunderstand what was truly important even though he was right about everything else.” Which is a truly great opening sentence, but it also makes clear where the narrative is going to take us. So that the journey is the whole point, but Galloway has created a splendid one. For the hockey-illiterate such as myself, this book was a splendid, uplifting ride, but for the hockey-already-converted, this might be the Canadian novel you’ve always been waiting for.

One thought on “Finnie Walsh by Steven Galloway”

  1. Looba says:

    Finnie Walsh was such a fantastic novel. It reminded me of how tight my heart was squeezed when I saw August Rush. A feeling that is indescribably, that wants to me to go back somehow, though I can’t. Seeing the handsome Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and the pretty Kerri Russell just made me feel so out of place and depressed on a weekend afternoon.

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