Alexander MacLeod can write. That was obvious even before his debut collection of stories made it onto the Giller Prize shortlist this fall. In his early twenties MacLeod published his first piece of short fiction, and since then, the now thirty-eight year old has amassed a mitt full of award-winning stories as well as a coveted place in the Journey Prize Anthology.
The dedication on this collection is simply the word Dedication, which fits this writer perfectly since when he’s not meticulously crafting his prose he’s teaching English at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. MacLeod is not one of the next big thing variety of writer with a Facebook fan page, a Twitter feed, and a lucrative contract with movie rights in the offing. Rumour has it that his book tour for Light Lifting consisted of driving around the country selling books out of the trunk of his car, and that the publishing deal with Biblioasis was sealed with a handshake and no contract at all.
When asked why it took him so long to come out with a collection of seven stories, MacLeod replied that life happened in between his appearance on the literary scene at twenty-one and his first book. For that we should be eternally grateful. What MacLeod has lived in the last two decades or so is the foundation of this collection. His experiences as a long-distance runner, a brick layer, a father, and as someone growing up in the car-factory culture of Windsor give the writing an intensity, a veracity and a confidence that could only come from a full engagement with life. In the first story, “Miracle Mile” (the piece selected for The Journey Prize Anthology), the questions left unanswered about what Mikey and Burner are doing in that hotel room tantalize rather than confuse the reader. We can relax and enjoy the uncertainty because the writer is so confident and assured. All that is unresolved and unspoken in the story, including its ending, are like compliments the writer pays us, trusting that we are intelligent enough to discover the deeper meaning without being told. “Wonder About Parents” is full of the excruciating details of delousing, diarrhea-laden diapers and parental paranoia described in such a way that you just know MacLeod’s had his share of sleepless nights elbow deep in vomit-soaked sheets. “The Number Three” takes us on to the minivan factory floor, a poignant and lyrical journey given the fate of the Chrysler plant in Windsor, and describes how it feels when you’ve lost faith in everything you thought you could depend on.
Alexander MacLeod can definitely write. Why then did I find myself desperate to finish the book? Why did I struggle to get through every page instead of luxuriating in the well-crafted prose? I think it’s because MacLeod’s perspective on life is relentlessly unpleasant. The characters he creates and the stories he tells in this collection are heavy with the harshness of human experience. Consumed one at a time, these stories are a testament to MacLeod’s ability. Read together in a collection, the disturbing subject matter ultimately threatens to overtake our appreciation for this writer’s obvious literary skill.
B.A. Markus is a writer, teacher and mother living in Montreal who has a deep respect for anyone who has ever had to rinse out vomit-soaked sheets.