Still in Books and Arts; Book Review;Short stories; Of moose and men
Light Lifting. By Alexander MacLeod.
A good novel woos its readers, tantalizes them with glimpses of flesh and gradually lures them into a world from which they later emerge changed. Short stories, by contrast, rely on instant attraction and immediate gratification. If they are good they leave one hungry for the next encounter. More often, though, they leave the reader slightly jarred, looking for greater fulfilment.
Alexander MacLeod does not. His brilliant debut collection, “Light Lifting”, is engrossing, thrilling and ultimately satisfying; each story has the weight of a novel. The young Canadian writer is already winning plaudits in his own country. He can expect acclaim far beyond.
These seven stories grip partly because they are long enough to immerse the reader totally. A good storyteller knows far more about his characters and settings than he shares with his audience. Mr MacLeod passes this test: though he plunges the reader into fully formed worlds, he leaves out just the right amount.
But it is the beautiful writing that really carries this book. The choice of words is spare, simple and unaffected, and the rhythm is perfect: despite the sadness that overlays many pieces, they flow with the comforting lull of a bedtime story.
The first story, “Miracle Mile”, is the best. It mesmerizes from its opening: “This was the day after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear.” Narrated by a competitive runner, it captures the minutiae of pre-race nerves—the “hiss” of a coach’s hydraulic door ; the temperature “just inching its way over toward cool”—as well as the “miraculous desperation” that is winning.
These are unflinching tales not of heroism, so much, but of survival. The most experimental piece, “Wonder about Parents”, snatches scenes from different homes. One family launches a crusade against headlice the “size of a poppy seed”, raking out hair night after night, “kids scratched raw”. Another drives cross-country through a snowstorm with their sick four-month-old daughter; the Christmas tree in the hospital bears a sign: “These gifts are empty boxes. Please refrain from opening.”
Other stories capture the consequences of a single moment when the ordinary tips into the extraordinary: in the title story a secondary schooler gets embroiled in a bar brawl on the last day of a summer job; in “Adult Beginner I”, after a woman nearly drowns in the ocean, fear becomes “a biological fact” in her life.
Much fiction is narrated by outsiders, but in Mr MacLeod’s imagination being an outlier depends on the context. In “The Loop”, for example, a cycle courier stands out as an able-bodied, right-minded youth among the fat, elderly and invalid people to whom he delivers medication.
Not every story in “Light Lifting” is perfect. A couple could be tighter; the male characters are better formed than the female ones. But these are small niggles in a stunning work. Mr MacLeod’s next contribution will be eagerly anticipated.