The loneliness of the long distance writer


SHORT STORIES: PETER MURPHYreviews Light LiftingBy Alexander MacLeod Jonathan Cape, 211pp. £15.99stg

THERE’S A NO-NONSENSE music-business maxim that states simply this: put your best track at the start of an album, the second-best next, and so on. Flying by similar lights, Alexander MacLeod begins his debut short-story collection, Light Lifting, with Miracle Mile, a 36-page firecracker that tells the tale of two college-age sprinters racing the train tunnels from the Michigan Central railway station north to Windsor, Ontario. As anyone who saw MacLeod read a portion of this piece at the 2011 Cork International Short Story Festival will likely testify, it’s a high-octane performance that feels less written than recited from memory: a casual, anecdotal tone that belies the skill of the telling.

MacLeod, born in Cape Breton and raised in Ontario, son of the Impac-winning novelist and short-story writer Alistair, is one of those writers whose work appears effortless only because they’re paddling like the devil under the surface. Light Liftingwas written over a 15-year period of apprenticeship. It shows. The following passage might pertain to the craft of writing as much as to the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

“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 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.”

MacLeod prioritises story over technique (or, to be more precise, he uses story as technique). These seven tales are as stark as Springsteen’s Nebraska. No postmodern smoke and mirrors, no pop-culture deconstructionist riffs, nothing that might mask deficient plotting or characterisation. Stylewise, he’d sit quite easily among dirty realists such as Carver or Wolff, or maybe TC Boyle. He doesn’t bother much with the short story as allegorical parable, and his language is pitched on just the right side of utilitarian. It’s worth noting that all the people in his stories have jobs, even the youngsters. MacLeod’s characters are defined by what they do – parenting, sprinting, playing street hockey, lugging breeze blocks – not what they think.

The sole concession to experimental narrative structure here is Wonder About Parents, which describes a young father rushing to an emergency room, reeking from a rare night out, after his daughter has been hospitalised with a kidney infection.

Time and again MacLeod snapshots familiar, seemingly unwritten characters as they negotiate the kernel event that divides a person’s life into Before and After. A pharmacist’s delivery boy stumbles into a dying man’s living room. A youngster on a summer job gets sucked into the spontaneous human combustion of a bar-room brawl. A lifelong aquaphobe swan-dives from the roof of a building into a junk-filled river. In the final story, The Number Three, a man who has dedicated his life to automobile engineering is reborn from a car wreck as Travis Bickle’s ghostly half-brother, rambling the roads until lame, engaged in some private form of mourning and atonement, a walking analogue for North American car culture: “He can’t walk 20 minutes on the Number Three without seeing another home-made memorial. The white wooden crosses – three feet high and hung with faded artificial flowers – are almost as frequent as kilometre markers. He pulls himself in and out of the ditches and reads every one. Dates and ages scribbled in black. Some are impossible and faded and some are 20 years old and still bright. He thinks of the hand coming back to re-paint and re-write the same words every spring and fall. People holding on to their rituals. There are vases and ragged teddy bears and laminated photographs and small piles of rocks that can’t be random.”

Light Liftingarrives bearing Giller Prize and Frank O’Connor Award nominations. These are more than warranted. Alexander MacLeod looks like a heavyweight in the making.

Peter Murphy is the author of John the Revelator(2009). His second novel, Shall We Gather at the River, will be published in February next year by Faber and Faber