Two runners in a tunnel, sprinting before the oncoming train. A young woman, afraid of water, throwing herself off a hotel roof into the river below. A damaged man walking along the side of the highway at night.
These are the images that have stayed embedded in my memory in the days since I read Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, a lousy title for a book that weighs so heavily on the mind. Each comes from a different short story, crystallizing the action therein – the moment of sudden change when, by design or accident, a person becomes someone else and may fleetingly glimpse the receding figure of the old self. A collection of small transformations, Light Lifting has deservedly been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.
There are seven stories in all, each of which is set in Windsor, Ontario or harkens back to it. It has been a while since a work of fiction reminded me so sharply of the pungent pleasures of locality. Windsor only rarely oversteps its bounds and intrudes on the personal dramas of MacLeod’s stories, yet it remains a constant presence: a waning industrial town, hard to love and, for that reason, loved all the better by a few. The city ties the stories together, pulling the disparate instances into a broad undercurrent of urban decline. The good times in “Light Lifting,” which keep bricklayers and bouncers busy, turn sour by “The Number Three” – the last and most topical story in the collection – when the aftershock of a car crash swells into a troubled and ironic elegy for the once-confident automobile town.
The twilit moment when action becomes epiphany is what interests MacLeod. “To do or not to do: that would be my Shakespearean question,” he revealed in a press-package interview. Epiphany, of course, is the great structural cliché of storytelling; each tale must refresh it anew. It’s a pleasure, therefore, to reach the end of “Miracle Mile,” which contains the scene in the train tunnel, and discover that what seemed to be another take on the loneliness of the long distance runner has in fact been more simply, and movingly, a story of friendship. Or, again, to realize in the last paragraph of “Adult Beginners 1” that the woman who forces herself to swim does not entirely escape the dangers of water.
Those are the stories I liked best in Light Lifting. Each has problems, however, which become more distracting and detracting for the rest. MacLeod writes well, if plainly, and he is clearly a practiced hand with the story form. Nevertheless, there is bravado in his writing that betokens a much younger man. His first-person narrators have the aggressive tendency to let their insights loose in asides that begin “You know…” He is too eager to demonstrate just how much he knows. A sentence like this one from “The Number Three,” comparing “a piece of crap 2.2 litre in-line 4 with barely 85 hp” with “the optional 4-litre turbo-charged V6 with 251 hp,” shows what happens when free indirect discourse becomes too free for its own good. And while there are distressing and effective images of violence in Light Lifting, too often MacLeod twists the reader’s stomach needlessly. The weakest story, the one that gives the book its title, ends with a brawl among bricklaying crews for which nothing, not even the characters’ frustrations, has prepared us and from which nothing results.
Like one of his own characters, Alexander MacLeod seems to be in an “in-between” state. Alongside the faults of his collection are passages of great power, beneath the sheen of performance are gulfs of feeling. MacLeod has not yet ascended as a writer. He published his first story at the age of 21, but he is 38 now, and Light Lifting is his debut book. He is also the son of Alistair MacLeod. I don’t want to speculate on what it must be like to write in the reflected light of a man who, with holy simplicity, has composed some of the best stories in the English language; suffice to say, it probably involves different parts inspiration and intimidation. I hope the Giller recognition steers MacLeod to clearer waters.