Sunday, September 26, 2010

National Post Review of Light Lifting

It's been a busy weekend for Light Lifting, with major reviews in the Globe, Post, and Halifax Chronicle Herald -- which I'll link to in another post -- and a profile in the Toronto Star. The last time a first book of short stories has received this kind of immediate coverage was .... I'm not sure when it was.

Jeet Heer in the Post writes:

As a compulsive yet sedentary reader, I found this passage superb, appropriately lean, muscular and punchy. But I’m not even a jogger let alone a sprinter, so I couldn’t vouch for the authenticity of MacLeod’s details about the running life until a Google search took me to a short review in Canadian Running of MacLeod’s story when it had earlier appeared as a chapbook. The runner-reviewer enjoyed the story as much as I did, finding it a chilling portrayal of the hyper-competitive
milieu of mile runners.

Almost all MacLeod’s stories revolve around people being bustlingly active at work or play. His characters swim and play hockey, they lay bricks and they build cars. All these exertions are described with such knife-sharp precision and finesse that your own muscles may start tensing up as you read them.

He is an unexpectedly physical writer; given his background, I would have expected him to be a more bookish writer than he is. His father is the writer Alistair MacLeod, a retired English professor. Alexander teaches literature at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. But unlike other writers ensconced in the Ivory Tower, he has an imaginative reach that extends far beyond the academy.

One of the stories in this book is about a graduate student; most portray blue-collar workers, many of whom live in the Detroit-Windsor automotive belt.

An undertow of anger tugs at more than a few of them, occasionally surfacing into violence. Many of the men have a need to prove themselves, either through barroom bluster or reckless acts of derring-do. In Miracle Mile, the runners aren’t content to compete against each other on tracks, they also play a game of chicken by running through the tunnel beneath the Detroit River, risking being crushed by an oncoming train. In one tense passage, a runner manages to stay only a few seconds ahead of death: “Burner was there charging toward me, the only dark space in front of the light. He had this long line of spit hanging out of his mouth like a dog and the look on his face wasn’t fear but something more like rage.”

What makes Light Lifting an impressive collection is its variety. I thought I had MacLeod nailed as an explorer of gritty masculinity and adrenalin-fuelled anger. But he can also be surpassingly delicate.

Wonder About Parents starts unpromisingly (and unappetizingly) as a tale about a family struggling with lice, but splinters off into an engrossing examination of parental worry and the constant anxiety with which any guardian of children must live.
In Adult Beginner I, MacLeod demonstrates he can write persuasively from a woman’s point of view. A young woman, long fearful of water, learns to swim, a training that parallels her growing personal confidence but also her increasing willingness to embrace danger, if not death.

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