After the four Giller Prize longlisters I read (The Imperfectionists, Lemon, Player One, and The Debba) each failed to make the cut to the next round, I had to start the shortlist from scratch. I decided to start with one that I have been looking forward to the most, Alexander MacLeod’s debut collection of short stories, Light Lifting (2010). Now, debut short story collections are tricky things — sometimes they are overedited and come off a bit dead, but other times they are simply brilliant— so I don’t always look forward to reading them. Also, I had never heard of Alexander MacLeod. So, why was I looking forward to this one? Because Alexander MacLeod is the son of Alistair MacLeod, surely one of the best short story writers there is; I’ve been making my way through his complete collection, Island. I hope to review it here soon. But first, the next generation — talent is not always passed on.
I’m happy to say that Light Lifting proved to be the pleasure I was hoping for. Each of its seven stories are quite different in content and style, though each ushers a character to some extreme situation (more often than not one that might not look extreme to the rest of us; maybe just some quiet moment) and each bears the marks of the author with spatters of details in sentence fragments that somehow do not interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Most of these stories take place in or around Windsor in Ontario, Canada, just across the river from Detroit. Refreshingly, these stories all focus on what I’d call the working class, though some of them focus on children of the working class. I agree with fellow Shadow Giller Jury member Alison Gzowski: this is a refreshing debut short story collection. It seems that so many short story writers today write deeply intellectual-seeming stories from some theoretical perspective gleaned in grad school and cultivated in an MA program. There are some great ones out there that follow just this mold, but there are many many terrible ones. At any rate, they grow tiresome. In Light Lifting we see an author who writes compassionately about people we all know, struggling in a region that has been decaying for half a century.
My favorite was, as often seems the case, the opening story. “Miracle Mile” begins with two friends in a hotel watching the television report on Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear. For some reason, these two are just lying there, waiting for something, doing nothing — purposefully trying not to move a muscle:
We just sat there, side by side, beds three feet apart, perched on top of our tight blankets like a pair of castaways on matching rafts drifting in the same current.
I meshed my fingers together on my chest and tried to make them go up and down as slowly as possible. It was coming and we were waiting for it. The goal now was to do absolutely nothing and let time flow right over us. It would have been impossible to do less and still be alive. I felt like one of the bodies laid out in a funeral home, waiting for the guests to arrive. You couldn’t put these things off forever. Eventually it had to end. In a couple of hours, some guy dressed all in white would say “Take your marks.” Then, one second later, there’d be the gun.
If you’re into sports writing, this is a must read. These two friends, the narrator and Burner, are highly successful 1500 meter runners. If you’re not into sports writing (and I’m going to guess for most readers of this blog, sportswriting is not high on the reading list), I still think this story will appeal. Beyond the sport itself is an excellent ellaboration on the theme of emptying life of all goals except one, how this changes a person, how pushing oneself to the brink can often take one over the edge. Here is one of my favorite passages about the vast difference three seconds makes.
That’s how we talked most of the time. The numbers meant more than the words and the smaller numbers meant more than the big ones. It was like we belonged to our own little country and we had this secret language that almost nobody else understood. Almost nobody can tell you the real difference between 3:36 and 3:39. Almost nobody understands that there’s something in there, something important and significant, just waiting to be released out of that space between the six and the nine. Put it this way: if you ever wanted to cross over that gap, if you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else. You have to make choices: you can’t run and be an astronaut. Can’t run and have a full-time job. Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run. When I stopped going to church or coming home for holidays, my mother used to worry that I was losing my balance, but I never met a balanced guy who ever got anything done. There’s nothing new about this stuff. You have to sign the same deal if you want to be good — I mean truly good — at anything. Burner and I, and all those other guys, we understood this. We knew all about it. Every pure specialist is the same way so either you know what I am talking about or you do not.
The cover of the book must have been inspired by this story (though the image matches the tone of several others). In “Miracle Mile” we see these runners engage in a horrifying pastime. At night, they’d go down to the train tunnel that went from Windsor to Detroit. One of them would take off running through it, and then, five minutes later, the other would follow. Not everyone who pulls this stunt is so lucky as these two (we know they live because the scene is a recollection while they relax in the hotel later), but there was one night in particular that our narrator recalls. After a rough flight through the tunnel, having fallen down a few times, he comes out on the other side and collapses. Several minutes later Burner still hasn’t made it through the tunnel.
I was actually hoping that he’d been caught on the other side, or that he’d chickened out, or come to his senses. I didn’t want to think about the other possibility but it still came flashing into my head. For one second I imagined how even at top speed, there would still have to be this one moment, just before the full impact, when Burner would feel only the beginning of it, just that slight little nudge of cold metal pressing up against his skin.
What a chilling thought.
This longish short story with a terrifying ending (not in the train tunnels) is an excellent start to the collection which also features confused parents (“Wonder About Parents,” my least favorite in the collection — a bit too impressionistic and not particularly insightful), a group of brick layers going out to lunch on their temp’s last day (“Light Lifting,” back to the strength of “Miracle Mile”), a young female swimmer taking on a diving challenge (“Adult Beginning I”), an adolescent boy who makes deliveries for the local pharmacy on his bike (“The Loop,” one of KFC’s favorites, and one he talks about at length in his review; by the way, neither one of us could escape pulling lengthy quotes), four brothers who have a somewhat hateful relationship with a strange boy (“Good Kids,” a very sad story), and a lonely story about a man who lost his wife and son in a car accident (“The Number Three”).
Perhaps I shouldn’t have started my Giller shortlist reading with this book. It might not get any better. But if they come close, the other stories will still be very worthwhile.
And, just because it was very difficult to limit the quotes I pulled for this review, and to reiterate how nicely MacLeod plays with tone and detail, here is the first paragraph in lonely “The Number Three”:
The single fried egg might be life’s loneliest meal. He listens to the sizzle of unfertilized yolk and waits another second before lifting away from the heat. The timing is important. He wants the skin starting to harden but everything else still shaky and runny inside. It quivers on his spatula before sliding onto the plate slimy and wet, like a living thing. Half a shake of salt, a full shake of pepper and good to go. This is supper. The toaster pops and he looks over. Watches the filament cooling, turning black again. He butters and dips and mops. The room is almost silent. Only the occasional gurgling coming from deep inside the fridge. A single fried egg, he thinks: enough food for one person, as long as they aren’t hungry.