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review: fiction

For Alexander MacLeod, the paternal shoes (more aptly, wellies) to be filled could not be much be bigger. In the 1970s and 80s, Alistair MacLeod gathered glowing critical and popular acclaim on the strength of his uncommonly pure and spare short fiction. He went on to win, among other awards, the 2001 IMPAC Dublin Prize for his haunting and majestic novel No Great Mischief. MacLeod's finely honed humanity, expressed with a simplicity that frequently belies the depth and force of its final effects, has by consensus made him one of our CanLit saints.

Saints, of course, have a tough time staying fresh. They gather scholarly dust and, too easily, an ossified adulation that can do disservice both to the subtleties of their gifts and to the acolytes (or progeny) who write in their footsteps. I'm happy to say that Alexander MacLeod's debut fiction collection, just long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, fully dodges the behemoth of homage and expectation. This writer swims entirely in his own waters.

Miracle Mile opens in a generic hotel room with best buds Mikey and Burner flat out on their beds watching the sports news. They're career runners on yet another cross-country track tour, their world narrowed daily to the prep and the race. TV surfing is one way of clearing their minds. "This was the day after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's ear." As a video loop of the carnage plays over and over, Mikey acknowledges, almost celebrates, the bestial sensuality: "Mike moving in for the kill, the way his cheek brushes up almost intimately against Evander's face just before he breaks all the way through and gives in to his rawest impulse ... and his teeth come grinding down."

A chummy-rivalrous erotic current underlays the story, from Burner's open speculations on his hotel bed about wearing underwear, or not, that day, to the light touch of a hand on a back just before a race. MacLeod's detours into scarier specifics of the track-addict demimonde are fascinating, plunging us into minds and bodies tortured in months of abuse to shave off crucial 10ths of a second. The story veils its deeper structure, building toward bursts of understanding. These guys love each other. They will never say so. And, like Tyson, they fight their rawest impulses and sometimes don't win.

Wonder About Parents pivots on the prospects of a babe in arms whose fever is judged a little too casually by her parents as they undertake a gruelling Montreal-to-Windsor highway trip on Christmas Eve. The more diversionary pivot is an episodic historical biology (both personal and global) of head lice, with surprise cameos from Aristotle, Henry IV and Vladimir Lenin, among others. Weighty with research, the tale nonetheless rattles along on arresting factoids and sharp set pieces, including a comically horrific diaper change in a crowded rest-stop men's room ("Got your hands full there, buddy"). Brisk and loose, it cuts the predictable sick-child suspense with a sustained ironic tone and an incisive take on the learning curve of parenting.

In Good Kids, four sporty preteen brothers make tentative friends with a geeky new kid in their neighbourhood. Reggie is a Lord Fauntleroy type dressed by mummy, yet so keenly and politely engrossed in the boys' street-hockey antics that they take a shine to him. MacLeod moves from genial echoes of Leave It to Beaver to a moving look at the raw malice lurking in boyish hearts. When Reggie later moves away with his mom, the development is unaccounted for - which may be MacLeod's point: Life itself is unaccountable. Still, it feels a letdown against the story's earlier vigour.

If you can recall, viscerally recall, being terrified of the deep in the place where you first were made to swim or sink, Adult Beginner I should rivet you to the page. MacLeod hits his stride in this entry. Impeccably structured, profoundly tragic (a tragedy you're forced, inescapably, to imagine), it matches deep subconscious terrors with the human need to court them, know them for real, and conquer them. Without a trace of cliché or sentiment, the story makes courage its theme, frailty its balancing shadow.

Like most of these seven stories, Light Lifting offers a vivid rendering of settings and cast and a satisfying scene-to-scene momentum. Still, its portrayal of a motley bricklaying crew comes in a touch heavy as a narrative vehicle. The closing bar brawl, despite diverting bloodshed, arrives courtesy of walk-on players with no link to the body of the story. The spectacle is gratifying, but leaves the tale neither resolved nor intriguingly open-ended.

The Loop is a tour through forgotten and terminal lives as witnessed by an overworked drugstore delivery boy. Allan's voice - describing everything from winter bicycle accidents to the oozing cyst he's urged to examine in a desperate old woman's kitchen - holds a steady course of self-protective dispassion. Beneath that, touchingly pitched, is MacLeod's subtle chronicle of a boy's initiation into the hardest truths about the arc of human life.

Regret, the gnawing, soul-destroying kind, blooms in MacLeod's closing story like a black rose. We try not to think about how a split-second error in a speeding car can change lives forever. The worst fate can be survival. The Number Three might have been tighter, avoiding the drift into assembly-line drudgery and pension issues for its stricken Windsor auto worker, but the nightmare of living with blame, and irreversible consequences, is flawlessly evoked.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.