17 September 2009

Hugh Hood and Le Gros Bill

Strength Down Centre: The Jean Béliveau Story
Hugh Hood
Scarborough: Prentice-Hall of Canada, 1970

The Montreal Canadiens begin their 101st year tonight. For at least a dozen reasons too obvious to mention, it's hard to raise much enthusiasm.

(Okay, okay, just one. How about the fact that they'll be hosting a team from some place called Sunrise, Florida.)

Strength Down Centre is an artifact of a time when hockey was healthy, the NHL was exciting and les Glorieux were indeed glorious. It seems an unlikely project for Hood. The author of seventeen novels and ten short story collections, Strength Down Centre, comprising roughly 120 pages of text, is his longest work of non-fiction and only biography. In his 1973 collection of essays, The Governor's Bridge is Closed, Hood reveals that the project originated with Prentice-Hall – and that, as a 'serious artist', his first reaction was to turn it down. (A decision he later described as 'stupid', based on 'simple snobbery'.)

Hood's own strength lay in fiction. Even 'The Pleasures of Hockey', the 'essay' that attracted the publisher's attention, was, by his own admission, a blending of fiction and fact. Hood could write well about sport – see: 'The Sportive Center of Saint Vincent de Paul' – but he was not a sportswriter. This is most evident in the first chapter of Strength Down Centre, covering the Canadiens successful, yet anti-climactic 1969 playoff run.
Saturday night. Big game, big BIG game!
Punchy non-sentences. Liberal use of the upper case. Exclamation marks. Repetition. Repetition and italics. Hood uses them all in an attempt to capture something of Béliveau and his Canadiens on ice. It's only when he turns away from the game, and toward the man, that the book achieves its value. The portrait presented is familiar: a generous, genteel and articulate man. Clearly, Hood recognizes this last quality, allowing Béliveau to tell much of his own story. Several quotes cover six pages or more.

Strength Down Centre received a second printing, but never appeared in paperback. As Puissance au centre: Jean Béliveau (Prentice-Hall, 1970), it is Hood's only translated title. Both editions feature dozens of really great photos, including this one of the subject in conversation with the author.

One not found in the book is this photo of le Gros Bill, smoking and reading in bed. I recommend the latter, but advise against the former.

Object and Access: Montrealers will not be surprised to learn that their own public library system doesn't have a copy, but Puissance au centre is available at the Pierrefonds branch. While the Toronto Public Library and several of our academic libraries hold the book, it is more easily found in the republic to the south. This odd situation due, perhaps, to the crummy binding, which seems designed to come apart with use. Very Good copies of the first edition will set you back US$10. One Montreal bookseller lists a Near Fine copy in Very Good dust jacket signed by Béliveau and the late author. A bargain at US$30.

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