In his Giller Prize-nominated collection of short stories, Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod brings us right into the skin of his often desperate characters, sometimes literally so, as in the scalding description of a sunburn in the title story: “Nobody deserved a sunburn like that… You could see it right through his shirt. Like grease coming through waxed paper.”
The stories deal with parents with sick babies, city pool lifeguards diving off the Holiday Inn roof into the Detroit River, pharmacy delivery boys seeing too much of how people end up when they’re old, and downwardly-mobile working-class people trying to get by in failing Windsor. They all seem to follow the advice of the roof divers: “You go all the way out, then all the way down.” His characters do go all the way out—the distance runners barrelling out of the Windsor-Detroit tunnel just ahead of the speeding train, the girl who almost drowned as a child taking her running dive off the roof into the river, the auto worker walking the impossibly long distance to the exact place where his wife and son were killed in one of the minivans he had devoted his working life to building. And they go all the way down, often into an explosion of violence, sometimes to a brutal but opening understanding of the way things are.
“We are made most specifically by the things we cannot bear to do,” a character in “Adult Beginner I” says. MacLeod continually puts his characters in the way of what they cannot bear to do, chronicling the making and the unmaking of them as they try.
The stories are grounded in specific detail—MacLeod must have held a lot of summer jobs before he started teaching at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, or he’s asked a lot of questions. The exactness of the writing is a joy to read, full of particular metaphors that illuminate a physical sensation or a depth of feeling so perfectly that the reader is compelled to feel it too. And it must be added that within the gritty reality there are great bursts of humour, as when the bicycling pharmacy delivery boy goes down with his delivery bag ripped open: “I looked like a soggy hospital piñata that had been walloped into submission.”
The language is wonderfully precise but the most elemental pleasure of reading these stories is the way you’re drawn into lives so different from your own and yet so familiar in their underlying humanity, which is what the best fiction does for us. I finished the book wanting more.