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Nasty Henry strangely compelling

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Henry's Game

By David Elias

Hagios Press, 95 pages, $16

Anti-heroes are usually hard to love, but there's something strangely compelling about the rude, insensitive, selfish protagonist of this sharply written novella by Winnipeg's David Elias.

Henry, who lives right here in River City, is a nasty man. He looks at his kids and has no idea who they are. When his wife cries out for help, he knows he has to give her a reassuring hug, but he deliberately doesn't. "That kind of thing has never been my specialty."

In fact, Henry is going through a prototypical mid-life crisis in which he questions everything around him. His best friend has just died after overindulging in smoke and drink. His wife has developed a lump in her breast. Despite it all, he is unable to feel any real emotions.

In the hands of other writers, this might be the formula for a depressing chronicle of existential angst. But Elias, a veteran novelist and short-story writer who also teaches the craft, manages to create a perceptive snapshot of daily life filled with humour and surprising insights.

We learn early on that Henry makes his living through chess. Not by playing it, but writing about it. He is responsible for penning the chess column on the Diversions page of his unnamed Winnipeg newspaper.

Even if they ignore the fanciful notion that anyone in Canada could make a living solely by writing about chess, readers are quickly thrust into the 64 squares that make up Henry's mind. Elias uses technical chess terms to introduce each of the novella's twists and turns, culminating in the critical position of Henry's endgame.

Chess, of course, is not an uncommon theme in novels -- such as Vladimir Nabokov's The Luzhin Defence to Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union -- with its motifs of black and white, good versus evil, and strategic manoeuvring between opposing forces.

Much of the dramatic action in Henry's Game centres on a family trip to Disneyland, a journey that leaves Henry as cold and empty as everything else in his life. The car breaks down, he loses his wallet, and he bickers with his wife. Even the Good Samaritan who comes to their rescue elicits nothing but contempt.

But there is dark humour throughout, and Elias injects hilarious imagery into the otherwise hopeless landscape. Alone at the funeral parlour, with his best friend's naked body on a table, Henry becomes fascinated with a certain body part. Just as he bends down to sniff it, the mortician walks in. It's a scene straight out of Mr. Bean.

Elias uses a staccato first-person voice to animate the novella. His sentences are short and to the point, some just two or three words long. Just as a chess game moves from opening to middlegame to checkmate, the story races along to its conclusion.

How convincing a conclusion it is can be subject for debate. But it might be too late.

Whatever game Henry is playing, whether he wins or loses, there are lessons along the way. Just like chess.

Cecil Rosner writes the chess column for the Free Press. Luckily for his family, he has a day job as managing editor of CBC Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J8

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