refereeing identity

Reviewed by Angie Abdou, College of the Rockies

4 June 2012       archive

Aficionados of sport literature know there has been a burst of energy in the field of hockey studies over the last few years. Notably, two Sport Literature Association members have recently released books. Jason Blake's comprehensive Canadian Hockey Literature (2010) has been widely praised as an indispensable and encyclopedic record of the sport's presence in CanLit. In 2009, Jamie Dopp along with Richard Harrison published Now is the Winter, an eclectic and energetic collection of cultural studies papers, each striving in its own way to answer the question "What happens when hockey happens?" Neither of these excellent books offers (or claims to offer) much in the way of deep and extended literary analysis. In reviewing the latter for SLA, I commented that the time had come for a book length analytical study of Canada's hockey novels.

Michael Buma quotes this SLA review in the opening chapter of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels and then positions his book as the answer to the call. As such, readers are invited to expect analytical depth, and they will not be disappointed. They may, however, be surprised by the study's impressive breadth. Buma provides extended analysis of Canada's most loved hockey novels (e.g., The Good Body, King Leary, Salvage Kings, Ya!) as well as those that are not well-known at all (e.g., The Checkout Girl, The Penalty Box, The Penalty Killing, The Uninvited Guest, Iced). He also includes canonical Canadian novels that readers might not think to associate with hockey (e.g., Two Solitudes, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). He refers to American novels when they are relevant to the discussion of hockey as it shapes Canadian identity (e.g., DeLillo's Amazons). He, sometimes when it helps to provide context, even includes analysis of sport novels that have no hockey in them whatsoever (e.g., Samantha Warwick's Sage Island, Arley McNeney's Post, and my The Bone Cage). As if this wide scope is not ambitious enough, Buma also veers into cultural studies in each chapter, turning his critical eye on Don Cherry, Wayne Gretzky, the Winnipeg Jets, Hockey Night in Canada, the influence of technology on hockey, and the history of decorated hockey masks (to name just a few of his most compelling topics). In short, Refereeing Identity is very inclusive, and Buma's research is impressive. As such, the book will be an indispensable tool for anyone teaching hockey literature or, once we accept Buma's argument about the centrality of hockey to an understanding of Canadian identity, for anyone teaching Canadian Literature at all. The index, by the way, is excellent.

The central premise of Refereeing Identity is that hockey novels participate in the myth building around Canadian identity. Buma focuses specifically on hockey novels' representation of nation and gender, paying particular attention "to the cultural work of hockey novels, the ways in which fictive representations of the game work to rehearse and/or referee certain identities and derive their significations within larger networks of cultural meaning" (5). Some key myths, which Buma describes (and deconstructs), are: unity through hockey, hockey as extension of Canadian landscape, and hockey's proposed antagonism between small towns and big cities as well as between Canadian and American nations.

I do not always agree with Buma's specific interpretations of texts. I would, for example, give Bill Gaston credit for being more subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced in his discussion of American-Canadian relations than Buma does (84). I would be less quick to commit intentional fallacy by proclaiming what kind of novel Gaston "wants to write" (204). I have different ideas about Steven Galloway's comments on hockey novels as they relate to low culture and high literature (23). However, my minor squabbles point to the strength of Refereeing Identity: as the first in-depth, book-length analysis of Canadian hockey literature, Refereeing Identity is, in many ways, starting the discussion and invites critics to engage, modify, and even disagree. Buma's interpretations and assertions, along with a teacher's counter-assertions, will help fuel many lively classroom debates.

My only true reservation about the book is the pointed instructions it gives to writers of hockey literature. Is the job of a critic to tell authors what kind of books they should write? For example, Buma suggests that writers of hockey literature ought to reconsider the way they portray violence: "Hockey novels are correct to want to referee violence, but don't appreciate the extent to which this must also involve reconsidering the ways in which they define masculinity. To say this another way, hockey novels attempt to treat the symptoms rather than the disease. What is required is a full-scale shift in cultural attitudes and assumptions" (262). He complains that "hockey novels work to reinscribe rather than challenge the harmful assumption that masculinity must be contingent on strength, dominance, and competition" (263). Finally, he asserts that "Rather than affirming the game's status quo and working within its constricting parameters, hockey novels should be artistic outliers that stand apart and creatively question" (270). He concludes, "at their best, hockey novels should […] fictionalize the harmful aspects of hockey culture in such a way to encourage critical distance and thereby work against these things in real life" (270). While the desired outcome of this suggestion may be admirable, the suggestion itself does have an oddly dictatorial ring. Are authors obligated to take on social reform with their creative work? Must they represent society as it should be rather than how it is? Can't the gap between the two be filled by the intelligent reader (as Buma fills it in the best sections of his book)? Buma's prescriptive assertion that authors ought to write didactic novels and only didactic novels is troubling.

However, my reservation about the concluding assertion does not undermine the critical impulses that lead to the assertion. For example, in the most energetic chapter, Buma considers the homosocial dressing room; his criticism of hockey literature's treatment of sexuality is, for me, the highlight of the book. Buma's discussion of the exclusion of women and gay men in representations of hockey is fascinating and his analysis astute. He argues that "by validating hockey homophobia in the minds of readers and reinforcing this harmful status quo through coercive repetition, hockey novels help to maintain a culture that is harmful to developing identities of gay youth and which undoubtedly ends up deterring young people such as [Brendan] Burke from playing the game" (220). Buma uses David Bidini's Five Hole Stories as an unusual and exemplary piece of hockey literature that allows for homosexuality to coexist with hockey. He argues that Bidini "challenges the sexual strictures of hockey culture" by having the goaltender fantasize about his teammate (220) and thus allows for the inclusion of homosexuality within the definition of masculinity (a project that is so central to much of hockey literature). Again, Buma's arguments inspire me as a teacher, and I have already added Bidini's Five Hole Stories to my sport literature class this fall.

Congratulations (and thank-you) to Michael Buma for this comprehensive, readable, enthusiastic, and provoking consideration of hockey literature and Canadian identity.

Buma, Michael. Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012. 324 pages. Paper. $29.95.

Copyright © 2012 by Angie Abdou

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