canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Pittsburgh Stories
by Clarke Blaise
Porcupine’s Quill, 2001

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

Bildungsroman, the novel dedicated to a person’s early life and education, becomes Bildungsgeschichte in the hands of Clarke Blaise, stories of youth that open up what he, ever the deadpan realist, calls "the sheltering memories of childhood. Or the preferred fictions of adulthood." Pittsburgh Stories is the second installment in a projected four-volume collection of Blaise’s short stories, and the book offers a series of tales sustained by the current of one time (post-WWII) and one place (Pittsburgh). His characters are culturally, economically, and racially heterogeneous, but in Blaise’s literary world such details are mere appurtenances of name and habit. What grinds his characters together grinds all of us: desire, the-will-to-control, pride, and their siblings: weakness, insecurity, and shame. 

Blaise’s sympathies are with the wit who, during the early-eighties’ hockey hegemony of "the Great One," opined that cheering for the Edmonton Oilers was like cheering for IBM. Blaise shows us the perspective of the underdog. He reveals how people suffer their dictatorial fathers, cheating husbands, and cruel friends, and how the accretion of pain can sometimes beget a voice. An affirmation. In "The Birth of the Blues," fourteen-year-old Frank Keeler, just minutes after hearing a man berate his toolbox-toting father, shouts at the somnolent riders of a trolley car: "I’m going to do things with my life. No one is ever going to tell me where to go. No one but me is going to tell me what to do, ever."

The misfit, the outsider, the alienated one: to say that such characters have become the clichés of modern and postmodern fiction is a tempting statement, but requires the forgetting of Job, Grendel, Caliban, Moll Flanders, et al. Better, perhaps, to look to Lawrence Durrell’s pronouncement – "All writers write because they’re horrified by the lack of love in the world" – for an understanding of the empathy which powers Blaise’s work. 

Not that he’s a teary-eyed sentimentalist. In "The Seizure," Delman, the black furniture-truck driver (and closet intellectual) often maligned by his boss, sneers at the boss’s college boy when he asks Delman about an historical marker they drive past: "You don’t like to lose a single edifying experience, do you?" Shortly after this moment, we witness a Polish father standing amid his three children and wife as his furniture’s repossessed by Delman and the boss’s son. The Polish father says to the onlooking deputy: "Looks like good coon shootin’ round here," and the lawman replies: "Ain’t never see a bigger one." Pride suppurating in public places, victims lashing out at victims: Blaise puts the flaying before us.

Robert Boyers, editor of Salmagundi and author of the introduction to Blaise’s book, focuses on his nuancing of post-war Pittsburgh, its "columned mansions on gaslit streets" hard by its "smoke-blackened buildings" and "blackened skies and acrid fumes, its intimate verticality of heaven and hell." Blaise’s occasional lengthy evocations of the city give some of these stories a memoir-ish feel. His architectural and ethnographic details sometimes slow down the narrative’s drive and allow a leisurely, novel-writing pace to take over. 

This short-story aesthetic is far across town from Raymond Carver’s diktat ("Get in, get out") and the style of much Carver-influenced short fiction in the last thirty years. However, while Blaise’s dramatic set-ups can be sluggish, a casual (again, deadpan) drop of a fact can snap one’s eyes open: "In a couple of years, her marriage of nearly twenty years would be over" ("The Unwanted Attention of Strangers"); "I had Oedipal longings – still do, doubtless, since I’ve never consciously considered them or working them out" ("Identity"). Blaise, then, takes chances with structure, with the short-story writer’s (and short-story reader’s) axiom that narrative energy must be built fast and then the story will cruise through ever-more-rarefied air to an unexpected, yet plausible, planet. Blaise’s stories often taxi before they take off. Still, the ride is a gripping one.

Harold Hoefle writes reviews for The Danforth Review and Books in Canada. He also writes short fiction and has almost completed a collection. His story "Czechs" will appear in the summer 2002 issueof Front&Centre, and "Cutting" will shortly appear in Telling Stories, Véhicule Press’s anthology of the finalists in the recent CBC-Radio Quebec story contest.






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