by Holly M. Wendt
Braddock Avenue Books, 2023
Reviewed by Nicole Hylton
Heading North is a necessary addition to the sports fiction hall of fame, making room at last for the underrepresented sport of hockey. Holly M. Wendt’s debut novel (out now from Braddock Avenue Books) is a masterclass in character development, engrossing plot, and the art of the sentence.
I came to Heading North acutely aware of the puck-shaped gap in the sports fiction genre. For my undergraduate thesis, I took a stab at writing my own with Dropping Her Gloves, a novella about a women’s college hockey team. Literary sports fiction is not new—Bernard Malamud’s The Natural came out in 1952. The Art of Fielding and The Throwback Special received plenty of acclaim when they were published in the 2010s. Hockey novels also certainly existed in 2017, but trying to find them required detective work, chasing down out-of-print paperbacks and interlibrary loans. As I read and researched for my own project, I wondered again and again, “Where are the literary hockey novels?” Why could I only find novels about baseball, and novels that centered the experiences of white, straight, American men?
Heading North is a definite response to this absence. Here is a novel that interrogates identity, language, culture, and grief with two deeply compelling protagonists and earnest prose. Here is a novel that centers the experiences of women and queer men, two identities often marginalized by the hypermasculine, heteronormative sports world. Here is the novel I have been looking for for the last six years.
Heading North begins with an admittedly less-relatable inciting incident: a devastating plane crash that kills the entirety of Russian hockey team Vityaz Svetlotarsk, save for protagonist Viktor Myrnikov. Victims of the crash are Viktor’s coach and mentor Jack Bodrov, boyfriend Nikolai Stepnov, and the rest of their teammates. The loss of Nikolai is particularly brutal because his relationship with Viktor was closeted. Neither Viktor or Nikolai’s family knew, not even Nikolai’s stepmother and secondary protagonist, Liliya Aleyev. Thus, Viktor is left to wrestle the twin demons of grief and survivor’s guilt largely alone, all the while navigating his first season in the NHL, a new country (the US), and a new language (English). As Viktor later confesses, in an understatement underscored by language barriers, “Partner. Like defensemen … I miss my partner.”
As any good sports novel should do, Wendt strikes a balance between character, plot, and description. There is enough hockey to satisfy the hockey fan without becoming a play-by-play, and enough metaphor and meaning for the literati without sacrificing plot and action. Wendt crafts sentences in the meticulous, exacting way an NHL superstar preps his stick before warm-ups. No sentence here is stock, off-the-shelf quality. Wendt takes the tape, the scissors, and even the blowtorch to each until they are just right, perfect for the reader to grip and not let go.
Perhaps the best example of Wendt’s ability to strike a balance comes in the opening pages of Heading North. Viktor and Nikolai play a simple game of pond hockey on New Year’s Eve in Parov, Russia. Viktor and Nikolai skate laps around each other, shooting, scoring, chirping. Wendt gives the reader the crisp prose they’ll come to expect in the subsequent pages: “Each stride slices the quiet, a sound like silver, a sound like the fog pluming their mouths as they cross and re-cross their little rink.” It’s an intimate, innocent scene between two lovers, two men who care so deeply about each other. But we’re quickly reminded of the world Viktor and Nikolai inhabit when a police officer arrives. Viktor’s thoughts immediately jump to how much the officer has seen of he and Nikolai. Can the officer tell “all the ways they know each other?” There’s a real threat to not only Viktor and Nikolai’s budding careers, but their physical safety. Six months prior to this game of pond hockey, Viktor tells us, Russian police raided an underground gay bar and arrested four men. One of these men later died in prison. It is a reminder for both the reader and our characters that “someone is always looking.”
For Viktor, the ice rink is both a bubble and a magnifying glass: the game itself is what he loves most, but it also opens him up to additional scrutiny. The hockey world is both a respite from the real world and a microcosm of it. The sociologist in me is always thinking in terms of structure: how do worldviews at the macro level affect those at the micro level? In Heading North, Viktor feels the pressure of being someone that larger structures would prefer not exist: a gay man in the U.S., a gay man in Russia, a gay hockey player. Heading North, then, is interested in how Viktor responds to that pressure, and how he himself can affect change. How can his visibility, his defiance of that impossibility and erasure, make change at the institutional level? How can the micro affect the macro instead?
These questions are also applicable to Heading North’s secondary protagonist Liliya. As the NHL’s first and only female General Manager, the stakes are high. As women in high-ranking corporate positions often do, Liliya feels a constant need to prove herself. She must make all the right business decisions—who to trade, who to sign, who to send to the minor leagues—without getting emotional or angry. She is not allowed to make mistakes. She is not allowed to ask for help. This stubbornness and obsession with perfection becomes apparent from Liliya’s first point-of-view chapter, where she argues with her father, team owner Peter Aleyev, about which players to select in the upcoming draft. After Peter ignores most of Liliya’s draft picks and replaces them with his own, the following exchange occurs:
“Do you know,” [Peter] says, “everyone still thinks I’m a fool for hiring you?”
Everyone means the other owners, men like himself. For hiring you means not just his own daughter, but a woman, any woman. She makes sure she closes his door quietly, waits until she’s in the elevator to whisper fuck you fuck you fuck you to the panel of buttons, the blurrily reflective ceiling, the tiled floor.
Liliya is “an experiment,” an anomaly, and much like Viktor, a highly visible one.
Professional hockey is at an inflection point. Within the last month, the NHL banned, then reversed that ban, on Pride Tape (rainbow-colored tape that players can use to wrap their sticks and show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community). Last season, several players made headlines by refusing to use Pride Tape or wear Pride-themed jerseys, citing “religious conflicts.” With this controversy still in recent memory, Heading North seems more pertinent than ever. Viktor faces frequent homophobic language in the locker room and amongst his teammates, yet he nevertheless wonders about coming out publicly. Heading North not only raises questions about the role sports play in our everyday lives (and vice-versa), but also about the intersections between queerness and identity. Is being queer the same as “being yourself”? Can you be one without the other? And how can we create an environment that allows individuals to be both? Perhaps the solution lies in the title of Wendt’s novel. We head north; we go forward.