Steven Galloway’s Finnie Walsh

Steven Galloway is perhaps Canada’s most promising young writer, and certainly Canada’s most internationally celebrated young author, but his professional achievements have been overshadowed by scandal. In 2015, Galloway was suspended from his teaching position at the prestigious University of British Columbia creative writing program, and later fired from the program on the grounds of “misconduct.” Though no criminal charges were ever brought forward, Galloway stood accused of sexual assault, along with a series of less severe transgressions, and when that news broke, Galloway’s public reputation was ruined. He was depicted as a serial predator and a danger to the campus. While the public had its way, a group of prominent Canadian writers – chief among them Margaret Atwood – took issue with the university’s handling of the case, and signed an open letter deploring the infringement of Galloway’s rights to due process and a presumption of innocence. Their small act of courage in defence of formerly basic liberal principles subjected the signatories to a torrent of online abuse (Atwood responded in a brilliant op-ed), and magnified the case into a national issue. Some three years later, the case against Galloway has fallen apart: an independent investigator could not substantiate any of the assault claims against Galloway, and found reason to doubt their ever having occurred. The full story, as told in Quillette, describes something even more pernicious: a “literary inquisition” perpetrated by prominent figures within the University of British Columbia. Galloway broke his silence earlier this year, describing the heavy financial and psychological burden the ordeal has inflicted on him. All of this to say, when I came across his debut novel, Finnie Walsh, in a local bookstore, purchasing it was the least I could do.

Finnie Walsh is a hockey novel, at least ostensibly, and even its chapter titles reflect this most Canadian of pastimes: First Period, Second Period, Third Period and Overtime. It tells the story of two young boys, Paul Woodward (our narrator), the son of a local millworker, and his improbable friendship with Finnie Walsh, youngest son of the mill owner, the town’s wealthiest man. The boys have a strange relationship with fate, kicked off by tragedy: Paul’s father, kept awake by their late-night driveway hockey games, loses his concentration at work for a split-second too long in the presence of heavy machinery, and loses an arm, from the elbow down. Naturally, both boys feel themselves to be responsible for the accident, which saddles them with a guilt that will take them the entire novel to exorcise. In under 200 pages, Galloway takes us from their early boyhood to their early adulthood, from driveway hockey games to the National Hockey League. Needless to say, such rapid pacing requires a condensed narrative, but Galloway nonetheless manages to cram it with a cast of memorable characters, from Paul’s father – an eccentric by any definition, who spends his early retirement working his way though every National Geographic ever published – to the school janitor, another one-armed man continuously having his prosthetic limb stolen by an unknown thief, and finally, most improbable of all, Finnie’s youngest sister, Sarah, who seems to have a gift for predicting impending disaster. Finnie himself is the grand unifier, the only character perceptive and caring and charismatic enough to bring together this unlikely band of misfits, and so the narrative is propelled by his influence.

The writing itself, I am sad to report, is less interesting than the story. Few risks are taken at the level of the sentence, and if the writing cannot be said to hinder the plot, neither can it be said to transcend it. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is invoked often, both directly and thematically, but the novel’s concluding sentence – intended to drive home the comparison – falls flat. By the time Melville brings us to the climax of Moby Dick, and Captain Ahab launches into his most memorable curse to the white whale (“To the last, I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for Hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”), we have had hundreds of pages of momentum building up, and time enough to process the mad captain’s fatal obsession; Finnie Walsh, by contrast, speeds us through its narrative, and its characters – despite their endearing quirks – cannot sustain the weight of Galloway’s ambitions. And yet, in Galloway’s defence, he was only 25 when Finnie Walsh was published, six years younger than Melville when Moby Dick first appeared. The better comparison (and the more obvious influence upon Galloway) is to John Irving’s A Prayer For Own Meany.