A curling stone, seen at the Belfast Curling Club in Maine.

A curling stone, seen at the Belfast Curling Club in Maine.

You know when you absentmindedly click on a product and an ad for the thing seems to stalk you online for the rest of your life? (I once thought the name “Mrs. Pasture’s Horse Cookies” charming. Now, with eternal repetition, it’s twee-sinister.)

You get the picture: A pipe dreamer who talks big, the kind of guy who sits down next to you at the bar and an hour later you’re feeling a bit trapped but at least he’s buying the drinks.

We all know that our tastes are being tracked online. But recently, I had the surreal experience of doing something IRL and getting an email the next day with a link to a story about the same thing.

The link came from my Narratively newsletter, and it wasn’t even for a recent story. It was a nearly two-decade-old one, about the lovably strange sport I had just learned: curling.

Come on – that’s weird, right?

But weird in a good way, because “Merv Curls Lead,” by the Canadian writer Guy Larson for the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine, is a wonderful character study.

Clearing the ice at the Belfast Curling Club.

Clearing the ice at the Belfast Curling Club.

It tells the story of Merv Bodnarchuk, a Canadian venture capitalist with a fixation: to create a curling dream team and make America fall in love with a sport that’s kind of bowling-meets-shuffleboard on ice, with a little housework broom-action thrown in.

“Merv said he was going to make curling big in California, as big as beach volleyball,” Larson writes. “Hell, Merv was going to create beach curling; the technology exists to make ice anywhere, he said. He would put a rink at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and get Jay Leno or Arnold Schwarzenegger to try the game.”

You get the picture: A pipe dreamer who talks big, the kind of guy who sits down next to you at the bar and an hour later you’re feeling a bit trapped but at least he’s buying the drinks.

Yeah, he’s got money, and maybe he can make it work and build his dream team. But as the deck of the story tells us: There’s a catch.

He wants to be on the team. And he’s just not as good as the other players.

I laughed when I saw the headline, “Merv Curls Lead,” because that was what I had just done in my “Learn to Curl” session. It sounds impressive, sure, but trust me: The first person to throw the stone — the lead — is the weakest. I knew it, and Merv knows it. But he’s paying the tab.

Larson is brilliant at establishing Merv as a guy who’s a blowhard, but a self-aware blowhard, kind of like Ricky Gervais as David Brent in “The Office.” He makes you squirm, but you also see the pathos of him.

Merv asked me if I wanted a slice of pizza, and I said no. He bought us each two slices. C’mon, eat up, he said. The whole night, we’d been sitting on the fair side of the bar from all the curlers. Now a drunken shout came from across the room, directed our way.

“There he is,” a curler called. “Merv Bodnarchuk – Mr. Curling.”

The curlers in JB’s Lounge turned and laughed.

Merv lowered his gaze.

“Some people like me and others don’t,” he said quietly. “You have to take the good with the bad.”

That moment ends the opening scene, which takes place at JB’s Lounge in the Black Knight Inn in Red Deer, Alberta. Larson tells us it’s “packed with the world’s finest curlers, in town for the Skyreach Curling Classic IV. Famous athletes, of a kind, they sat drinking Molson Canadian and rye and Cokes and Paralyzers, filling ashtrays with stubbed-out du Mauriers, discussing life on the bonspiel circuit. They were dressed in nylon sweatsuits and curling jackets with the names of hometown car dealerships and grain-supply companies stitched on the chest.”

Ready to sweep.

Ready to sweep.

As a recent transplant to a small New England town, I love how Larson captures this world: guys who spend their days working one or two (or three) low-paying jobs to pay the rent and then spend their nights at the local lounge in a fug of booze and cigarettes and camaraderie.

They may not be much to look at, but on the ice, they’re stars.

“The seeming inelegance of the curlers back in JB’s Lounge – their stout bodies and skinny arms, their short legs and thick waists – was replaced, in the Centrium, by a preternatural grace, like a walrus finding hits element as it slips into water,” he writes. “They slid down the ice and released their stones with the delicacy of a loving caress.”

(Maybe I’m just channeling my inner Beavis and Butthead, but in the same section, a pirate metaphor isn’t the first thing that popped in my mind with this passage: “Yes! would suddenly be yelled, the voices as harsh as a pirate captain on the high seas: Yes! Yes! Don’t stop. Hard! Harder! Harder! Every inch! Hurry Hard! HURRY HURRY HURRRRRRY!”)

But it is with Merv that Larson really creates an indelible character, at times an insufferable blusterer, at others an insecure, lonely man who just wants your approval.

He wanted to share his list of favorite things with me. His favorite colour was purple, he said, the dominant motif of the team jackets. Neil Diamond was his favorite singer – he loved his power music. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Donald Trump, Dolly Parton – Merv reeled off all his passions.

But beyond his marvelous character development – and flashes of humor that made me snort with laughter — Larson has written a narrative with a true arc, in which you implausibly become invested in the team’s chances.

The flow is chronological, using subheds to great effect: “Red Deer, Alberta – December 3.” “Yorkton, Saskatchewan, December 9.” “The Yellowhead Highway, December 12.” And finally, the day of the make-or-break “Santa Spiel”: “Jasper, Alberta, December 18.”

If Merv’s team doesn’t win here, it won’t make the big season-ending championships. The recent matches have been full of bickering and resentments – and losses. Merv has been out of the country, talking big to investors in Dubai, and he has to beg the three others on the team to let him play. But he’s so intimidated by them, he asks Larson to make his case, in a scene that captures the dynamic of a man who can’t buy love.

He wanted me to ask the others if they would let him play with them. he had missed a couple of games, he allowed, but he really wanted to play. He said he would call back in ten minutes. In between ends I passed along Merv’s plea.

“Should we let him play?” Dale asked Doran and Shane.

“It’s not right, him coming into a bonspiel cold like that,” Shane said.

“He hasn’t played much this month,” Doran said. “We should make him sit out a game or two, make him practice before he plays.”

“You can tell him that,” Dale said to Doran. “I’m not telling Merv to sit.”

“Ah, what the hell: let him play,” Doran said.

“Tell him to bring his checkbook,” Dale said to me.

I will tell you this: He plays. But you won’t find any spoiler alerts here. Trust me: Read this offbeat story with real heart at its core to find out for yourself.

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