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Sunday, October 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ice Hockey Is The Game Of Life In `Divine Ryans'

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "The Divine Ryans" by Wayne Johnston Anchor Books, $12.95 -------------------------------

As baseball is to America, so hockey is to Canada. Which is why, in Canadian author Wayne Johnston's coming-of-age novel, "The Divine Ryans," set in 1960s Newfoundland, the sport figures not only prominently but mystically.

Nine-year-old Draper Doyle Ryan is a hockey enthusiast who believes, as most fans do, that "any team's fortune depended on the mood of their fans. . . ."

Draper Doyle's enthusiasm goes beyond the corporeal, however. He keeps seeing the ghost of his dead father nonchalantly tossing a hockey puck in the air. He dreams of "The Apuckalypse," an end-of-the-world scenario in which hockey pucks fall from the sky. He is told that while he was born with a white soul, every sin besmirched it, and if his soul turned "puck black" before he died he was eternally damned.

After his father's funeral, Draper, his older sister and their pretty, widowed mother, are forced to move in with their Aunt Phil, the matriarch of an old-money Newfoundland family - the titular Divine Ryans - who are quickly losing both the money and the family.

As is, Draper is the lone male heir to what was once an extensive business empire but which has been reduced to the family newspaper and funeral parlor. As Uncle Reginald - the friendly, ironic counterpart to Aunt Phil's domineering hypocrisy - says, the Ryans have always been "digging up dirt of one kind or another."

Originally published in Canada in 1990, "The Divine Ryans" is finally being released here (as a paperback original) partly because of the buzz surrounding Johnston's latest novel, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," and partly because a movie version of "The Divine Ryans" will be out next year, starring Pete Postlethwaite.

Johnston is reminiscent of John Irving. Every character is eccentric, but we still know whom to root for. The antagonists are tyrannical and pathetic, horrible yet comic. The protagonists are put-upon. Irving is funnier, but Johnston manages some hilarious lines and metaphors, and may even be easier to read than Irving. One glides along his prose as along an ice-skating rink.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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