Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Montreal Gazette REVIEWS Clark Blaise's The Meagre Tarmac

The first of what I hope will be many reviews of Clark Blaise's new short story collection The Meagre Tarmac appeared today in The Montreal Gazette. I'll have a lot more to say about this collection later -- hopefully later this week -- but for now I'll leave you in Ian McGillis's capable hands:

The Meagre Tarmac

By Clark Blaise

Biblioasis, 165 pages, $19.95

``Sociological anomalies.'' The term appears on the first page of Clark Blaise's new book, used by a Russian-American graduate student to describe a generation of South Asian immigrants in North America, a group marked by its disproportionately high rate of professional success as much as its disinclination to identify itself as a community.

Double-edged as they are, the words would serve well as an alternate title for this unified - if not strictly linked, certainly loosely interwoven - collection of stories. Blaise finds a multitude of ways to show the human implications behind a dry academic designation, and the toll that never quite belonging can take.

Blaise was born in North Dakota to French-Canadian and Anglo-Canadian parents, and has lived and worked in both the United States and Canada. That neither country claims him as its own may partly account for why he's not as widely read as the standard of his work clearly merits: anthologists and canon- compilers never seem quite sure where to slot him.

But it may be that very not-quite-here, not-quite-there perspective that gives Blaise's writing its distinguishing observer's clarity. Pittsburgh Stories and Montreal Stories are indispensable collections set in cities of which Blaise has extensive first-hand knowledge; in The Meagre Tarmac, he takes his flair for character and social chronicle a step farther, in the process achieving a rare feat of cross-cultural empathy.

One of the first things you notice about Blaise's Indo-Americans is that, by any conventional material marker, they are doing very well. The closest thing to a failure among his protagonists is Vivek Waldekar, subject of that earnest graduate student's research, and even he is solidly middle class, with a daughter who's set to become the youngest student ever to attend Stanford. But all is far from well in Vivek's world. His family is in revolt: his wife openly contemptuous, his academically gifted daughter shockingly precocious in other ways too, Vivek himself ridden with guilt over a long-ago sexual dalliance and the memory of the sacrifices his father made for him. Here is one culture transplant that hasn't taken hold.

Most of the subsequent stories feature people whose road has been smoother than Vivek's, the drama in their lives arising less from any sense of looming disaster than from more subtle forms of culture clash and self-definition adjustment. A Hollywood star, a Goan literary editor, an eligibly single banker who seeks an Indian bride despite all his notions of having transcended tradition, an IT magnate thinking of taking his American-gained wealth back to India's needy - these are super-achievers, highly educated, able and willing to articulate all the nuances of the delicate identity dance in which they're engaged, but prone to occasional trip-ups nonetheless. Reassuringly, they're also able to laugh at themselves and how they're seen, as when one man archly remarks, ``It is my experience in the West that Indian men, afraid to press their opinions or exert their presence, are often perceived as soulful.''

Blaise's writing has always been marked by its sharply detailed focus on how place shapes people and vice versa, a strength on especially trenchant display in The Quality of Life. The aforementioned actor recalls his schooling as a child in 1960s Montreal, where ``The purpose of French instruction in the Protestant schools appeared to be inoculation against the local usage.'' Later he reports his parents' comments on their subsequent Canadian experience: ``Toronto was nice, they said, but rather anti-Indian in a crude, working-class, British sort of way - although the absence of French was compensation.'' (Blaise lived in Montreal for several years in the 1960s and '70s, teaching creative writing at Sir George Williams, and later, Concordia University.) Canadian race attitudes as seen through the eyes of Indian immigrants who in turn are seen through the eyes of an American writer with French-Canadian roots and an Indian writer wife (Bharati Mukherjee) - this is a rich stew, and these stories are full of such multi-layered moments.

The Meagre Tarmac might have been rounded out with one or two stories of the less accomplished: hopeful scholarship stars who couldn't cope, dropped out, ended up stranded in dead-end jobs bearing the brunt of their minority status in ways their successful compatriots haven't had to. Such things do happen. But Blaise gets his chosen subjects so right that it's far better to applaud what's there than to regret what isn't. Add the non-showy way he ties things together - scenarios presented from dual points of view, figures disappearing only to pop up, years older, in other stories, characters bumping against each others' lives in surprising ways - and what Blaise has created is a collection greater than the sum of its formidable parts.

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