On one level, Mordecai Richler's On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It is a series of essays that cursorily examine the origin, rules, and history of the game, and the professional development, achievements, and personal lives of such snooker champions or "characters" as Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Ronnie O'Sullivan, and John Higgins.
Richler observes that journalist A. J. Liebling has also been seen to describe sports figures as "characters." Yet, he remarks, Liebling is condemned by Joyce Carol Oates in On Boxing for this inclination: she regards his "peculiarly self-conscious assemblage of pieces, arch, broad in humour, (as) rather like a situation comedy in which boxers are 'characters' depicted for our amusement." Richler's own arch, broad vignettes about these characters are, in part, for our amusement, but this does not detract from them. In fact, the book's scope, if it had been limited strictly to the world of snooker, would have remained highly entertaining because Richler has always had a special touch for deftly rendering the absurd and satirical facets of human life and behaviour.
On Snooker, however, is about much more than just the mechanics of the game or its all-star players. The three epigraphs which open the book suggest the different angles Richler is playing in the series of sketches that follow. The first, by Archbishop Luigi Barbarito, extols the "virtues" of the game, a line of argument that Richler pursues throughout the book. Persuasively testifying to the merits and attractions of snooker, he traces its development from its origins, to its place in his youth when the game was initially regarded as a less than respectable past-time in Montreal, to its heights of glory when television made it a socially acceptable, worthy, and lucrative enterprise with a large following.
Still, the intermingling of Richler's respect for the game, the broad sexual humour and innuendo, and the ironies involved therein cannot be avoided. I am inclined to believe, for example, that, in true Richler-esque fashion, the first epigraph is meant to be ironic, if it was not deliberately concocted for the purposes of the book: how else is one to approach Barbarito's quotation, which concludes with the assertion that snooker "is an ideal recreation for nuns"? (Indeed. One is left puzzling over, among other things, what Barbarito would have considered to be the ideal recreation for Archbishops.) In a related tangent, Richler also addresses the gendered nature of the sport¨women often being excluded from both the upper echelons of competition and better venues¨with his vintage sense of trenchant wit.
As he follows the game's development, so he also maps, in the tradition of Hunting Tigers Under Glass, the cultural and social strata of Montreal where he was first introduced to snooker and how those strata have altered with time; he recollects the friends with whom he would escape from intermediate algebra classes to play at the Rachel Pool Hall (in "five deft strokes", for example, Nat Ginsberg is most memorably portrayed); and he describes his rites of passage into adulthood which parallel the development of snooker itself. These autobiographical segments are extremely funny and worthwhile reading in themselves.
The second epigraph by Charles Lamb suggests another thematic concern of the book: the competitive side of human nature and our desire to challenge, to be challenged, and to win. Many of the sketches comment upon the rivalry between snooker players, the manner in which the game's "greats" ascend¨and descend¨with sometimes lightening speed, the way they interact with and strive to outdo each other, and even the unrelenting desire to outperform oneself. These sections are only occasionally unengaging because they dwell at length on some of the mundane aspects of the game.
The final epigraph and thematic concern of the book concerns the way in which snooker is a parallel for writing. This quotation, by William Makepeace Thackeray, is thus particularly resonant:
To use a cue at billiards well is like using a pencil, or a German flute, or a small-sword¨you cannot master any of these implements at first, and it is only by repeated study and perseverance, joined to a natural taste, that a man can excel in the handling of either.
Snooker is an analogy for the act of writing, for the artistry and monumental effort involved in any literary undertaking. Here Richler is alluding to his own writing career, the difficulties involved in staying in "top form" and performing well under differing pressures, and his uneasiness about the fact that, as an aging writer, he would not be able to play well consistently.
Writing is a "rogue's game," Richler declares, undoubtedly his favourite one because it allows him "to make my own rules, rewarding and punishing as ordained." By implication, this means Richler himself is something of a rogue, not entirely an inaccurate portrait of the artist. If he is the knavish writer he claims to be, however, he is also a (self-described) loving husband and father: his wife, Florence, and children (in particular Emma, "a talented young writer," and Daniel, "most proficient with the cue") receive very affectionate tributes in the book.
As he begins, so he concludes with this analogy between snooker and writing in "L'Envoi"¨surely meant to be an echo of Stephen Leacock's final section of Sunshine Sketches of A Little Town, perhaps an indication of how the book ought to be regarded as a series of "sketches," and, most poignantly, Richler's send-off. In "L'Envoi," he considers the similarities Oates notes between boxing and writing: "that which is 'public' is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling (sic), and frequently despairing period of preparation." There is something rather moving about this comparison. Richler is indirectly allowing the reader a glimpse of his own inner struggles and anxieties, products of his writing endeavours.
This anxiety surfaces throughout the collection. In the ninth sketch, for example, he transposes his sense of hope for John Higgins's success to his own writing career: if Higgins could play a perfect game, then "just maybe, against all odds, a flawless novel was possible." It is staggering to think that such a pithy, keen writer as Richler would have been concerned about the "novel that will be free of clunky sentences or passages forced in the hothouse" and that he would conclude that "each novel is a failure of sorts."
In this vein of thought, he devotes one of the final paragraphs to "reminding" the "gifted" Hendry that he may still be great again, and that, like that outstanding golfer Jack Nicklaus, he might return and "confound us" with another win, "if not this year, then maybe next year, or the year after." Given the analogies directly made throughout the book, one cannot help but draw parallels here between these players and Richler as writer. Nor can one resist considering the perennial hope that both writers and readers maintain, the hope that another "win" will be forthcoming. In this capacity, Richler's book has not disappointed his readers' convictions, or, at least, not mine: the book serves as a demonstration that he was able to play as well as ever. ˛