[Braddock Avenue Books; 2023]

The era of gay sports lit is nigh! Or, I want it to be. What better social landscape for hot queer romance than the striving, single-minded, close-proximity sweating of coordinated athleticism? I am a little desperate for gay sports stories. It may be the case that women’s sports are inherently queer spaces: women’s sports have been gender-bending since, well, gender. But the realm of professional men’s sports is an iconically staunch cultural space of unironic “no homo” politics, a fact that would be comically stupid, if it weren’t so scary and sad. The overriding “no homo” attitude is especially dangerous because professional men’s team sports is also a realm, by and large, of violence and severe behavioral discipline, and farm systems that root down through college athletes, high school athletes, all the way down to youth camps.

As we continue confronting a vicious homophobia and transphobia that gets called culture war—the casualties, make no mistake, are dead kids and murdered trans people—professional men’s sports just keeps barreling along, a mega-profitable industry that seems nearly impervious to critique or demands for accountability. But small transformations happen. Holly M. Wendt has written exactly the kind of story for which I’m so desperate.

Wendt’s debut novel Heading North follows young hockey player Victor Myrnikov from Russia to the United States after the tragic death of his beloved teammate Nikolai Stepnov. The two young men were more than teammates: they were secretly lovers who never got to be together freely in Russia. The secret at the heart of Victor’s grief drives the plot, which features Russian and American sports and social climates, intergenerational family drama, and a tentative love story, all of which culminate in a nauseatingly high-stakes test of courage in the face of hate crimes, queer repression, and state violence.

On the one hand, Heading North fictionalizes real-world developments in hockey. Various teams have, in recent years, declined participation in Pride-themed game nights. In June of 2023, US commissioner Gary Bettman banned players from wearing Pride jerseys and warm-ups during theme nights, and went on, months later, to ban rainbow tape on their sticks. As usual, the people suppressing queer visibility claimed to be focusing on the game and eliminating distraction. Like the real world, Wendt’s book traverses organizational logistics like these, exploring how they are variously entwined with national culture, family relationships, and interpersonal animosities.

On the other hand, Wendt’s writing stays stunningly close to the body. The body, in this case, is often that of a professional athlete aching with grief and hope. Victor’s mental and physical landscape manifest each other on and off the ice, but he’s never very far away from the game. I don’t know much about hockey—my sport is basketball—but you don’t have to know anything about hockey to feel that Wendt does: they write it gorgeously, in prose thrumming with the rhythm of coordinated movement. Hockey is a choreography of near-frictionless bodies explosive with strength, of controlled violence and the physics of desire:

The drill, the cones, the obstacles: look. Philippe Germain seems to teleport through them, flickering behind the broad, blocky body of Dobroslav Vopat, third-line center, as the puck knifes to the always-ready curve of Adam Beran’s stick. Francey darts in to disrupt but the puck is already gone, kissed and cradled and saucered back fifteen meters on, exactly where Beran is now waiting for it.

Beyond the embodiment of play and proximity, Wendt also evokes the social structure of the team, with all its violence-adjacent camaraderie, affirmation, and intimacy. This is the brotherhood of sport, a venue where tough-guy masculinity is enforced.

Victor is big and strong and Russian and very good at hockey, so the world expects of him certain performances. His American coach wants to make a brutal machine out of him. When Victor is dogged by an opposing team’s Russian player with what he alone knows are disgusting insults, the Coach, who calls him by his number instead of his name, urges Victor, “Go stand up for yourself, five-seven.” When Victor does fight, extensively, he is also confronted with the opportunity to disclose the homophobic harassment he endures. Victor’s management sits him down at a table. They ask him what is being said. “I don’t make trouble,” Victor says, in his tactical way, “I play hockey.”

Language barriers are dynamic. Victor’s English is rough, a fact Wendt employs gorgeously to walk him up to the line of disclosure and misunderstanding about his sexuality and his past relationship with Nikolai. Victor begins to tell Adie Barnett, the team’s trainer and his budding love interest, about his relationship with Nikolai:

“No. I only—imagining him.” Victor breathes deep and it stutters. “My—” What can he call him? “Nikolai. Such brat. Spoiled, since forever.” Spoiled, but Nikolai was generous with it.

When asked direct questions, Victor can feign ignorance. Sometimes he really doesn’t understand. Wendt stages an immense dissonance between Victor’s complex calculus of team dynamics and social norms and his oversimplified English. That dissonance results in intense clarity when he does use his odd English to achieve broken, yet exact meaning—as when he defends his ultimate decision to come out to the Russian press, certainly throwing away his career but also potentially risking his own life, saying, quite sternly, “Someone is having to do it.”

That sports can function as a proxy for nationalism is not at all lost in Heading North. Even as the outlines of Heading North bear some resemblance to a stereotypical representation of Russia and the US as two poles of authoritarian repression and democratic liberation—for example, Victor’s teammate in San Francisco drives them to what is presumably the Castro neighborhood for pie, and Victor sees queer couples all over the street, and with some awe he suspects that “none of these people are terrified”—Wendt’s novel resists the simplicity of stereotype, depicting instead the ways repression and discipline function in US cultural spaces, and the ways resistance and freedom happen in Russian cultural spaces.

In the US, the San Francisco Pilots’ trainer Adie Barnett, a former aspiring hockey player, tells Victor the harrowing story of his own coming out in the sport. He’d been injured, hospitalized, on a lot of pain medication, and had told his own team captain about his sexuality. “Like this, so he knew I wasn’t joking,” Adie says, demonstrating to Victor how he’d hooked his smallest finger into his team captain’s for a pinky swear. The captain responded with disgust and fury. “He broke my finger.” That was the end of Adie’s hockey career.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Nikolai’s dad makes a public disclosure of homosexuality right before the kick-off game of the city’s new team, in the city’s new memorial stadium, funded in large part by the networking Nikolai’s dad has been able to do as a lionized hockey player himself. And, yes, “one of team’s major sponsors rescinds their money,” but not everybody bails. “The steelworks, shockingly, sticks to their commitment, and even though there is another bonfire of donated jerseys and gear, a local journalist has the courage to call that act wasteful nonsense.”

Rather than pitting the two nations against each other, Heading North hosts a match between people and disciplinary power. In both nations, people tactically work for their safety and agency. Victor has witnessed brutality on the street in Saint Petersburg outside a gay club; he has also been questioned by reporters about his willingness to play on a US hockey team employing a gay man. He has been absolutely secretive with his own closest kin about his love for Nikolai because he knows how high the stakes are. He even internally explores the question—implicitly put to him—of whether he really loved Nikolai, or whether their relationship was a product of circumstance, of warm bodies in proximity. It’s a brutal question, one that the world tends to ask of non-heteronormative relationships.

There’s a less-good version of this book that could have gotten detached from its characters’ bodies in favor of sweeping political schematics, but Wendt always foregrounds the physicality and the tenderness of Victor’s experiences. The days Victor spends in Nikolai’s house after his death are the most difficult; Nikolai’s “pillow smells like him, like he was just here, like he might be back soon.” Here, the world materializes in and through Victor’s body.  When Victor is called homophobic slurs on the ice, he feels it in his jaw, his guts, the blur of his vision. He hits a punching bag alone in the training room, trying to work the fear and grief and loneliness out of his body, trying to channel “[t]he sweet silver feeling of the ice everywhere.” At the final press conference, Victor sweats through the belly of his shirt, and tries to situate his large body to hide it somehow, an impossibility. This metaphorically resonant physicality is the triumph of the book: I wept.

Heading North shares space on an ever-expanding shelf of queer literature. It bears some thematic similarity to High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann, in which an oil-rig worker mourns his lost bunkmate and partner. Heading North even shares space with a modestly growing shelf of literary books about sport, like Chris Bachelder’s 2016 novel Throwback Special. But this very beautifully crafted gay sports novel is still a kind of unicorn. The particular ways that Wendt complicates masculinities as they are envisioned, enacted, and disciplined in professional hockey make this book an urgent work of queer world-building on an international stage. And Wendt’s sentences are simply masterful.

It’s almost hard to make the case that this book is a beacon of queer joy and possibility. Though Wendt consciously elides certain graphic articulations, Victor is in the world with violence and hate. But he is also in the world with youthful silliness, with tough-guy types who are surprisingly loving, and with the ever-present possibility of joy. The novel becomes one of a man rebuilding his life in the grace of committed friendship and budding romance. Victor keeps playing hockey. He is both gay and a professional athlete. For this man, and maybe for his sport, there’s life after the grief, and that life has a lot of goodness in it.

Heading North reminds us that the stakes of queer visibility prove, as ever, high; at stake are safety and joy and life itself. Here in the States, especially in cities like San Francisco and even in smaller, more unlikely places, there is joyous support for queerness in the public sphere. But most of all, Heading North reminds readers that this kind of public embrace is predicated upon visibility, which itself is predicated upon the great courage of people who have insisted on their own visibility.

Kasey Peters is a writer from Nebraska, with work in Carve, The Pinch, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blue Mesa Review, and others. A 2022 winner of an AWP Intro Journals Award, Peters works as the editorial assistant for Zero Street Fiction, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press dedicated exclusively to LGBTQ+ literary fiction, and as Fiction Associate Editor at Prairie Schooner. Before all that, Peters farmed for a decade.

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