Finalist for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, Alexander McLeod writes his first short story collection, Light Lifting, with intense physical details and mostly dark but realistic endings.
The emphasis is on the physical, whether it be two first-rate runners trying to outrun a train in a dark rat-infested tunnel between Windsor and Detroit, or the life of lice next to a baby’s dangerous plunge towards death, or a woman’s swimming to overcome her fear of water only to face a greater danger in the Detroit river, or a kid drugstore courier bicycling in snow and ice and falling into traffic, or a kid experiencing bad sunburn while hauling bricks, or another kid’s violent initiation into a family of boys’ games, or an injured man walking thirty miles rather than getting into a car.
MacLeod immerses the reader in the characters’ often threatening world. The first story “Miracle Mile” gives the serious runner’s world:
The numbers meant more than the words and the smaller numbers meant more than the bigger 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…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…Can’t run and have a full-time job…Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run…
I used to think that a bus full of track people on their way to a meet was like one of those old fashioned circus trains with…all the freak show people…Each of us had one of those strange bodies designed to do only one thing…
If I ever have a kid, …I’ll move him from track …to something with a team or something where you can put the blame on your equipment if it all goes wrong…
It always got bad before the biggest competitions…like before the Olympic trials. You’d get stuck with this feeling like when you’re blowing up a balloon and you know you’re almost at the limit and you’re not sure if you should give it that little extra puff because there might still be room for a last bit of air or it might just explode in your face.
The runners’ values are molded by their experience: “We have to scrounge for meaning wherever we can find it and there’s no way to separate our faith from our desperation…We can only value what we yearn for and it really does not matter what others think…We are what we want most and there are no miracles without desire.” And yet the ending defies some of these values, as runners are sadly only human.
Since lice have been with us from historical times and are hard to eliminate for good, MacLeod has to “Wonder about the Parents” in terms of asking whether parents are negligent or how committed they are in stopping the problem. He sets this question alongside the realistic tale of a baby sicker than her parents think. It is a fact of human nature to not know when and why disease and lice thrive.
One of the most disturbing stories is “Adult Beginner I,” because the reader feels the woman’s fear of water: “the recordings of breaking waves some people used for relaxation—they gave her a twisting feeling deep in her gut and bowels, as if someone were wringing out her intestines like a wet dishcloth.” A near catastrophic childhood event caused this fear:
Across the road, the water streamed in steady and grey and metallic, like an assembly line churning through its rotations. Before they broke, the waves rose up three or four feet, not big but jagged-looking and ugly. You could see chunks of debris and streaks of roiled up seaweed in their faces like lines of graffiti scrawled on broken concrete walls.
The undertow was “water, working like a rope, like a tangled line attached to a massive winch at the bottom. I am going down the drain, she thought. I am going down.” Even with fear, insights emerge “We are made most specifically by the things we cannot bear to do…Fear is our most private possession.”
Many of the stories leave us hanging. A few turn the good fortune around to end in a fight. Defeat but also resilience, unsentimentally shown. Characters are less memorable than the threatening events, but the writing is strong, like a light in the dark.