Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 4
Light Lifting. Alexander MacLeod; $19.95 paper 978-1-897231-94-1, 224 pp., Biblioasis.
Other awards: Journey Prize (“Miracle Mile,” nominee 2009)
From the publisher: “These are elemental stories of work and its bonds, of tragedy and tragedy barely averted, but also of beauty, love, and fragile understanding.”
From reviews: “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.” – Jeet Heer, National Post
“The narrators of Light Lifting are often working-class men and boys, and the Windsor-raised MacLeod, a holder of three university degrees and the son of noted author and professor Alistair MacLeod, struggles at times to inhabit their thoughts.” – The Walrus
“This collection blew me away, start to finish.” – Rebecca Rosenblum
“It really is a stone motherfucker of a book.” – Robert J. Wiersema
My reaction: There is a brute physicality to Alexander MacLeod’s prose in these seven stories. Whether he is describing the tension in a runner’s body or a swimmer’s early immersion in unforgiving water, MacLeod’s prose zeros in on the precise details of physical exertion and activity; he is a master at creating what Flannery O’Connor referred to as “a world with weight and extension.” Note the almost surgical exactitude with which he describes the incremental damage that bricklayers’ bodies undergo in the collection’s title story:
Anyone who’s ever done this kind of work can tell you that bending over is the worst part of it. Bending over and getting up, and then bending over and getting up again – it’s like you’re folding and unfolding your body all day. You get creaky. And just that little bit of weight – just the weight that’s in a couple of bricks – that’s enough to grind you down. Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times. But it’s the light lifting that does the real damage. Maybe it’s just thirty pounds and it starts off slow, but it stays with you all day and then it hangs around in your arms and legs even after you leave. That kind of lifting hits you in the knees first and then in your shoulders and neck. It used to surprise our summer student kids. It would catch them off-guard, usually in the early afternoon, just after lunch. One minute they’d be loud and laughing and tossing the brick around like it was nothing and then, all of a sudden, that little grinding pain would wind up and get hold of them. You could almost see it tightening around them. It was like they got old all at once. They’d hunch over and get really quiet and start concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong.
The language here is flayed to the marrow; the movement of the paragraph from the general to the specific, from the idea of “folding and unfolding your body all day” to the stark surprise in “that little grinding pain,” is tightly controlled and deliberately released. The image of the summer kids who “got old all at once” and ended up hunched over, “concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong,” is perfectly appropriate and perfectly unobtrusive: like the best stylists, MacLeod never calls attention to his technique, but embeds it seamlessly into his narrative.
The stories in Light Lifting involve characters at decisive moments in their lives, moments that reverberate with implication. The young bicycle delivery boy in “The Loop” crosses the threshold of a house that may contain imminent danger; his action changes him irrevocably, such that he can never return to the innocence of his childhood, no matter how much he may want to do so. A woman who struggled mightily with her fear of the water takes a daredevil dive off the roof of a hotel into the Detroit River. And a competitive runner explodes in a moment of violence when the endeavour he has devoted his life to is unthinkingly called into question.
Tough, urban, and contemporary, these stories offer unflinching glimpses into individual lives; they are stylistically assured and emotionally resonant. And throughout, MacLeod accomplishes one of the most difficult tasks a fiction writer can undertake: he makes his work appear effortless.