In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s Q, Terry Fallis, twice a winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, claimed that “regardless of our physical makeup, there’s probably one sport out there at which we could excel, maybe even be really good at it.” For his part, Fallis has spent a lifetime trying numerous sports to see if he “might be a world champion.” This curiosity led him to the boys’ golf team in grade 8 and ultimately inspired his latest protagonist.
In Albatross, Fallis’s seventh novel, Adam Coryell has only a passing familiarity with golf — at least until he meets his grade 12 PE teacher, the oddly endearing Bobbie Davenport. Despite having never held a club, Adam finds himself whisked into the world of fairways and country clubs because of the counterintuitive theory of a quirky Swedish professor, Ingemar Gunnarsson. As the professor would have it, Adam has the ideal arm-to-leg-length ratio, the right torso and overall height, and all the other physical attributes that make him a golfing prodigy with little, if any, need to practise.
It turns out that Adam is indeed a rare bird — an albatross in more ways than one. An albatross, of course, is that unflappable bird with a three-metre wingspan and the unique ability to stay aloft for days at a time, gliding above unbroken stretches of sea with seemingly little effort. Its name is also a British term for something equally rare: three under par, or what North Americans call a double eagle. Under the guidance of Bobbie and Professor Gunnarsson, Adam soars to new heights, effortlessly becoming the world’s highest-paid golfer.
“I don’t even know how to hold a golf club,” Adam tells his mother, as he sets out to test the professor’s “far-fetched” theory and defy the odds. She responds by pointing out, “Every theory that now holds true and that we now see as self-evident passed through that stage when it was seen as half-baked. That’s the nature of progress and discovery.” Bobbie also encourages him to believe in the improbable and in himself: “There is no limit to what you can achieve in the golf world if you decide to stick with it.” Adam taps her as his caddie, an unheard-of choice that further defies norms and golfing tradition.
There is something compelling, yet fraught with indulgence, about discovering one’s ideal sport. We are drawn to events such as the Olympics and world championships not just because they are fun and entertaining but because we are fascinated with those who dare challenge the impossible and bet on their own potential. Yet Albatross is only about sports on the surface, a point Adam makes clear as he dreams of becoming a writer: he wonders about “Hemingway’s iceberg theory, in which much of the story is unstated but clearly lurking below the waterline.”
In spite of his new-found fame and wealth, Adam struggles with his gift and what it takes away from his true dream. Bobbie wonders how someone who is “a multimillionaire many times over, living in a nice condo, with a very nice BMW in the underground parking lot” could be so unhappy. She forgets that Adam has lifelong passions that existed long before he and his perfect ratios walked onto a putting green.
Through Adam’s ambivalence, Albatross asks us to reconsider the very nature of success. What does it look like? How does one achieve it? Is it built on wealth and fame, or on something else entirely? Adam the golfer epitomizes triumph without effort, agency, or control. He is grateful for his golfing accolades, but that’s “not the same as being fulfilled or happy.” All the while, Adam the writer continues to search for happiness and fulfillment — both “delicate flowers” that can be nurtured only by a sense of purpose and hard work. “I just wished I’d earned the enhanced public profile as a writer, and not as a golf savant,” he says.
As the novel progresses, we gain a better understanding of Adam’s true purpose, even as his full self remains somewhat obscure. Despite his certain golfing successes, he pursues a less certain career. Sitting in a creative writing workshop, he nods in agreement as a classmate describes one of his characters as feeling “a little flat.” Just as Adam does not know his own fictional character, we really don’t know much about Adam, aside from the comfortable nest egg he’s built and his love of writing, fountain pens, and Allison, his girlfriend. As he seeks purpose and agency, we seek to know what makes him (and in a way ourselves) whole.
Fallis pushes us to ask the difference between being good at something and being fulfilled by it. Along the way, he sheds light on the ways of the writer. In the novel, Adam writes a novel of his own and describes his process of breaking it down into chapters, then “smaller and smaller segments,” and finally bullet points, eventually reducing his “sense of uncertainty to negligible levels.” Guided by his outlines and mastering his plot through a type of reverse composition, Adam finds that he can then “write with purpose and confidence.” He also offers up opinions on self-publishing, writing short stories, and learning to find “the value lurking in the sometimes unnecessarily harsh criticism.” The golf prodigy experiences difficulties at these writerly things — just as every other author inevitably does. (But it doesn’t hurt that he’s never concerned about paying next month’s rent.)
It’s tempting to read into Adam’s first-person commentary the voice of Terry Fallis, who fills this gratifying novel with tongue-in-cheek humour. Despite moments of loss and heartbreak, Fallis coats every page with unexpected hilarity — often juxtaposed with the inevitable plaintiveness of life. He imbues Albatross with an accessible ease, which brings a lightness to Adam’s struggle. He also pokes fun at himself and his profession. As Adam endeavours to complete his novel, for example, he considers the wealth that would befall him should he ever become “a fully-fledged published Canadian writer.” Here, Fallis reminds us that the wealthy Canadian writer is as rare as an albatross — almost laughably so.
One could be forgiven for reading Albatross as something other than a novel. Is this a memoir? A send-up of Canadian publishing? Is it a disguised attempt at a light-hearted self-help book? Time and again, it is as if Fallis is nudging the reader, saying, Hey, this isn’t just a story about golf, it’s about me, and it’s about you too. In fact, in his acknowledgements, Fallis writes, “Despite initial appearances, this is not a novel about golf. It’s about life.” By this point, one doesn’t need Fallis to say that, though. Despite all the specific sports lingo, Albatross is a wry source of true motivation, even for the least talented of golfers.