31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 1: “The Closing Down of Summer” by Alistair MacLeod

May 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Island: The Collected Stories

Island_Alistair_MacLeodAlistair MacLeod’s literary reputation is based on a total output of three books: two collections of stories (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun) and one novel (No Great Mischief). The fourteen stories from the two collections – along with two previously unpublished pieces – are contained in Island, a single-volume omnibus brought out by McClelland & Stewart in 2000. In addition, “To Every Thing There Is a Season,” one of the stories from As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, was released in a deluxe standalone holiday edition, and last year Random House Canada published “Remembrance,” a story specially commissioned by the Vancouver Writers Fest, as a digital single.

That’s it.

One novel and seventeen stories.

MacLeod harboured attitudes that are deeply unfashionable today. He knew that a writer is not owed anything by his readers – not a living wage, not respect, not adulation. He knew also that a writer owes readers the highest calibre of work the writer is capable of producing. He believed in publishing only when he had something worthy of publication. As a result, he was not prolific, but everything he did allow to appear between two covers is a polished gem.

And the enduring popularity of No Great Mischief notwithstanding, it is the short stories that glimmer brightest.

Set among the hardscrabble labourers of Cape Breton, MacLeod’s stories are steeped in Gaelic heritage and an oral tradition. His prose is often incantatory, charged by the rhythms of speech and the idiosyncrasies of local vernacular. His fidelity to a bygone method of storytelling has sometimes seen him smeared with accusations of being old-fashioned, but this misses the point entirely. The formal construction of MacLeod’s stories is precisely what gives them their emotional power.

Like much of the CanLit canon, “The Closing Down of Summer” focuses on memory, but MacLeod was not a chronicler of stasis; his stories and his characters may traffic in their individual and collective pasts, but those pasts are never far removed from present circumstances.

This confluence of past and present afflicts the story’s first-person narrator, a miner who “always wished to be better than the merely mediocre” but spent only a single year at university – “mainly as an athlete and as a casual reader of English literature” – before dropping out; he now imagines the next generation turning their backs on the hard life of manual labour for university, where they will “study dentistry or law and … become fatly affluent before they are thirty.” The sons of the narrator and his fellow miners will “seek out other ways of life which lead, we hope, to gentler deaths” than being crushed when a mine shaft collapses on top of them, or feeling their lungs seize up as a result of the foul underground air they are forced to breathe.

In typical MacLeod fashion, these ruminations lead to a staggering realization on the part of the narrator:

And yet because it seems they will follow our advice instead of our lives, we will experience, in any future that is ours, only an increased sense of anguished isolation and an ironic feeling of confused bereavement.

How heartbreaking for a father to want a better life for his son, but simultaneously to recognize the very way in which this sets the generations apart, erecting a barricade to understanding and camaraderie.

Nor is the reference to bereavement incidental. “The Closing Down of Summer” is a death-haunted story, on the level of incident, theme, and language. Ironically positioned as the opening story in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, the very title refers to something finishing or shutting down, and the story’s first words are, “It is August now, towards the end.” In two days, the men will get in their cars and drive to Toronto, and from there fly to Africa for a season’s work in the mines. The narrator knows that there is a good chance not everyone will make it back alive. Fifteen years ago, the narrator’s brother died in a Newfoundland mine, “crushed and broken amidst the constant tinkle of the dripping water, and lying upon a bed of tumbled stone.” Such danger is ever present for the miners, who are described as being “entombed” in the confines of their underground caverns.

Death is pervasive for the story’s narrator, and taints even putatively pleasant experiences back home in Cape Breton. After returning from a season in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, the narrator expresses surprise at hearing the music that has become popular while he was away. “There was always a feeling of mild panic then,” he muses, “on hearing whole dance floors of people singing aloud songs that had come and flourished since my departure and which I had never heard. As if I had been on a journey to the land of the dead.” And on calm summer days, during which the miners can finally expose their sickly white skin to the sun, the narrator’s thoughts turn to friends who have died on the job, and whose coffins lie “beneath the nodding wild flowers that grow on outport graves.”

“I must not think too much of death and loss,” the narrator tells himself, though the entire story stands as a challenge to this directive. Ends and beginnings elide into one another throughout “The Closing Down of Summer,” from the waning days of a lazy vacation season giving way to the beginning of a period of productive work or, potentially, a fatal accident.

It is particularly melancholy to read “The Closing Down of Summer” so soon after MacLeod’s own death, although there is also something comforting in the experience. The author was never sentimental about life’s harshness, and his burnished prose allows beauty to shine through even surpassingly dark material. “If I am to survive,” the narrator supposes, “I must be as careful and calculating with my thoughts as I am with my tools … I must always be careful of sloppiness and self-indulgence lest they cost me dearly in the end.” This comment could also serve as a manifesto for a writer who rigorously avoided sloppiness and self-indulgence in his writing. Alistair MacLeod may now lie beneath the nodding flowers of an outport grave, but his stories endure, the lasting legacy of a literary giant.