Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Blog blast past: Paul Quarrington, on life boxes and bullet-counters

Toronto author Paul Quarrington died earlier Thursday from lung cancer. One obit remembered him as a "hockey bard." As a small token of appreciation, here is a post from June 3, 2009, when news of his illness went public.

One way to stay positive about the sad news about Toronto author Paul Quarrington is to reflect on something taken from his work.

Quarrington, who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, has has indulged his sports sweet tooth for a couple of his comic novels. Home Game revolved around baseball, while King Leary traded on hockey.

He also provided two concepts serious sports obsessives probably should have a greater appreciation for, Life Boxes and bullet-counters. The first was from a sports book but covered life its ownself. It was the opposite with the latter, which is in keeping with how it goes with Quarrington. He usually turns it all inside-out to reveal any kind of truth.


Life Boxes comes from Quarrington's Hometown Heroes. The book is kind of obscure. Quarrington hung around with the Canadian national hockey team during the months leading up to the 1988 Calgary Olympics. It's out of print and might not have a ton of appeal to either literary types or sports nuts (Canada doesn't have a national hockey team anymore). It was valuable for Quarrington's theory that the grid of career statistics that sports fans memorized off the back of trading cards in the days before or hockeyDB should be called Life Boxes.
"I have learnt about Life Boxes.

"No-one else calls them Life Boxes, although the name seems fairly obvious to me. Media people, scouts, creatures of this ilk, make a concerted effort to sum up a man's professional career in a box about yea big:"

"You see enough of these Life Boxes, you learn some things."
Quarrington wasn't the only one to muse how one could infer details about an athlete just from the rows of numbers. Bill James also covered it off in one of his Baseball Abstracts. However, the idea of a Life Box has some appeal. It offers clues about how someone lived, what kind of hopes they woulod have had early in their life, their personal frustrations, the bumps in the road and how it ended.

It reaffirms that pro athletes are blessed. Their Life Boxes are filled out for them. The rest of us are on our own. Most of us, frankly, don't have a screw's clue how to fill in the blanks if your life was laid out in the style of a hockey card.
2001-02 University of King's College ?
2002-03 Portage Daily Graphic ??
2003-04 Portage Daily Graphic ???
2004-05 Simcoe Reformer ????
2005-06 Simcoe Reformer ?????
2006-07 Ottawa Sun ??????
2007-08 Ottawa Sun ???????
2008-09 Ottawa Sun ????????
Thankfully, life isn't broken up into chunks. Don't miss the point, though. The appeal is in wishing it could be that simple.


Bullet-counters speaks to the old saw about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. It comes up with writing about sports. There are so many statistics and names to that must be correct and every sport attracts it share of knowitalls and the literal-minded, God love 'em, plus a few honest-to-goodness dullards. Screw one detail up and all the blood, sweat and tears which went into capturing the spirit of the thing is null and void.

The way it works is there's no coming back from having all that meticulously crafted prose unravel on a nail thanks to a misspelled last name or writing a 25-yard pass was a 30-yard pass. The person pointing it out, take it from someone who's been on both ends, usually means well. However, the proper huffy response is to receive them as another those-who-can't type, as Quarrington's main character in The Ravine, Phil Quigley, a producer on a TV Western set in the 19th century, explains to an underling.
" 'See, the thing is, Willy, there is magic in television. But no one around here ever trusts the stuff. We don't need to get an actual hundred-and-sixteen-ear-old typewriter. We could shoot a dishwasher and just say it's a hundred-and-sixteen-ear-old typewriter, and everyone — everyone except Ernst Kibble — would believe us. Send it back.'

"Ernst Kibble, in case you are wondering, is a man who lives in, I don't know, a rabbit warren in Northern Ontario. He watches Padre faithfully, but has no interest in the show beyond the spotting and reporting of historical inaccuracies. He's the supreme bullet-counter. You know what I mean, right? For example, in the crowd at the Galaxy Odeon there were at least four kids who, upon commencement of any gunfight in the Old West, would start counting aloud the bullets fired. If there was ever a seventh bullet discharged from a six-shooter these little creatures would howl derisively. Bullet-counters grow up to be accountants, although Ernst Kibble has the syndrome too profoundly to function in society. He once pointed out to us — via an email, a godsend to the insane — that the stars in the night sky were in an alignment that belied our stated time of year. 'That is simply not a November vistage!' "
Bullet-counters seems like a good term for people who get hung up on something tiny and ancillary. They might be right. They're wrong if they can't see the magic that just happened, although the existence of such is usually a function of the writer's ego.

Who knows what fate awaits Paul Quarrington, since the survival rates for people diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer are not overly promising. He made the magic happen, and trying to popularize a couple of his concepts is just a modest way to join the people wishing him well in his fight.

Quarrington says lung cancer diagnosis 'surreal'; Writer and musician hopes to see some projects through (John Doyle, Globe & Mail; via Quill & Quire)


Anonymous said...

Awful news. "Hometown Heroes" is worth the read if you can find it. No one ever mentions "Logan In Overtime" - fiction, about a small-town senior hockey goalie and his vices.

sager said...

Thanks for the nice comment. I haven't read Logan In Overtime, it's on the list. Strangely, I really struggled with Home Game but was rewarded when I finally finished it on my third try. It's probably since I feel more proprietary when it comes to writing that's related to baseball.