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In 'The Mighty Oak,' a minor league hockey player faces the cruelties of time and obsession

Artistic narratives are full of wounded folks — physically, spiritually, and/or mentally — who for one reason or another didn't achieve the success they dreamed about. To call them "beautiful losers" is probably a weary simplification. But there's an undeniable appeal to a hero we root for precisely because his or her flaws add a certain wounded nobility to what might otherwise be a mundane, even forgettable existence.

Consider Tim O'Connor, the hero of Jeff Bens's moving new novel, "The Mighty Oak." O'Connor — or "Oak" as he's known to hockey fans in his hometown of Boston, throughout New England, and in a number of minor league arenas from Florida to Texas — is a once-promising player whose body and mind are crumbling in a relentless pattern of on-ice violence and the escalating chemical/alcohol regimen required to start it all over again the next day.

Bens will be the virtual guest Tuesday for The Day's November edition of our "Read of THE DAY" book club series, presented in partnership with Bank Square Books. The free event happens via Zoom. 

Oak is a marvelously drawn, complex and appealing character whose decisions can either frustrate readers or make them want to reach beyond the page to offer him reassurance. For example, he doesn't self-medicate to get high; it's simply what's required to get ready to play, and only by playing can he make it to the National Hockey League, which is what he considers his destiny. Regardless of his motivation, though, he's an addict.

A cruel twist is that Oak's talent and value are in the role of a hockey "enforcer," a player who delivers punishment to opponents in response to their own violence and dirty play. In this age of increased awareness of long term damage in collision sports, the National Hockey League has changed their rules so that enforcers are a decidedly endangered species. Only in the minor leagues is fighting still a big draw.

If there's a strong element of self-denial about his prospects, chalk it up to Oak's passion and a warrior's sense of self-worth. But the preservation of these ideals have also come at a heavy cost in other aspects of his life. Back in Southie, he has a daughter, Kate, he hasn't seen in years. Her mother, Oak's ex-wife, is now married to his childhood best friend.

It's only when his own mom dies and Oak returns home for the funeral that he's forced with shame and embarrassment to reach out to his loved ones. Even then, his efforts are stilted and bumbling. Then, when a chance encounter with police leaves Oak facing assault charges, the reality is that he'll be in town a while — or possibly prison. But what could at least be an opportunity to bond with his daughter only creates more guilt and an inability to act.

Small hope arises when Oak is assigned a court-appointed attorney, Joan, whose own tragic circumstances provide an otherwise unlikely connection. And when he steps in to help a young boy, the jazz prodigy Kim, escape an abusive father, Oak seems to be rediscovering elements of humanity. But why can't he extend this thawing emotion towards his own family? And how far will he go to feed his addictions?

Bens, who is also the author of the novel "Albert, Himself," came to writing fiction in a roundabout fashion. He attended Brown, then studied filmmaking in grad school at UCLA and Warren Wilson College. Bens was a founding faculty member of the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and also directed an award-winning short documentary film called "Fatman's" about life in a small North Carolina diner, run by two widows, as the town changes around them.

Along the way, he began writing short fiction. His stories have been published in  such publications as New England Review, Fence, New Ohio Review, and The Sun. Bens now heads the Manhattanville College's undergraduate creative writing program and teaches both undergraduate and graduate workshops in creative writing. He's also at work on his third novel.

Earlier this week by phone, Bens spoke with self-effacing wit when he answered five questions about "The Mighty Oak" in advance of his "Read of THE DAY" appearance.

1. Despite the continual presence of hockey in the story, the marketing folks wouldn't call this a sports novel, right?

A. Right. I guess the way I approached it was to have a wounded protagonist, and my job was to put pressure on that wound so it has to resolve for good or ill. Of course, in fiction or cinema or whatever, I don't think there's a protagonist who's NOT wounded. For me, I have to have a character I want to explore in that context. Occupation is a big part of that.

So, regarding the sports aspect, I've always liked hockey and been fascinated by the players — men and women — who have the spirit and heart that make them love the game. Those are two things I admire across the board. Hockey is what Oak does. I very much like the way someone's job defines them or affects them, and in this case, hockey is a collision sport that, with 20/20 hindsight, can take a toll in many ways.

2. There's a visceral authenticity to the way you write about the sport. Did you play?

A. (Laughs) Definitely not. It took me 10 years to write the novel, and I wanted every aspect to feel authentic. I talked to a lot of minor league hockey players, and I have so much admiration for them. These are athletes that were built to be stars, who were the best at every level they played from youth through college and into the minors. But for many of them, they don't make it to the National Hockey League and start the slide down. It's a cruel reality and not easy to accept. And that's one thing Oak is dealing with.

3. Oak's in bad shape. His body barely functions, his brain is cloudy, and in his desperation to stay competitive, he's become an addict. Back in Boston, when he realizes he has to stay medicated, he enters a world that requires a great compromise of conscience. But he also meets Joan, his lawyer, who has similar issues that have arisen from the grief of losing her husband. How did you walk the tightrope of that relationship?

A. I wanted in Joan someone outside of Oak's world but who can be defined by her exteriors — so that what's going on inside her world is something most people don't see or recognize other than the trope that she's grieving. But what happened in her life before that? There's something that draws these two unlikely people together that interested me. They can't possibly be a couple, can they? They're both victims of an opioid crisis characterized by the relative inexpensiveness of drugs that are all over the place and reach the professional class.

4. You write with gritty affection about Southie and the people who live there, both major and minor characters. Talk about the idea of "place" in your approach.

A. For me it's always a combination of character and place and occupation. How does place shape character? How does character live in accord with or push against, place and work? And there are places within places, subcultures within cultures. There's a line in the book, "In the movies, no one in Southie goes to college." The novel is not a South Boston novel, but hopefully it stays true to the narrow slice in which Oak was raised. The place is changing so much, too, and I hope the book gets at that authentically. It is really important to me that these slices of places and jobs feel authentic to those who know them far better than I will ever.

5. There's a lot of darkness in this novel, but there are also a lot of wonderful, very human characters who are taking positive steps. Reality would suggest not everything will end beautifully, but that's part of the majesty of the book. Did you know this going in or were you letting the characters tell their stories?

A. All of these characters grew out of Oak's emotional world. At the same time, as I would write, the other characters found a way to emotionally develop Oak. I knew from the start this novel wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea. But this is Oak's world and what's happening in that world. What I will say is that I believe in hope. We've all read books where the ending is a real downer, but this has hope. It's hard-earned hope as opposed to sentimental hope, but the hope is there.

To see and hear

Who: Author Jeff Bens with The Day's Rick Koster 

What: A virtual conversation about Bens's new novel, "The Mighty Oak," as the latest in our "Read of THE DAY" book club series in partnership with Bank Square Books 

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Via Zoom chat

How much: Free, register at www.banksquarebooks.com

For more information: (860) 536-3795

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