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Steven Heighton (Handout)
Steven Heighton (Handout)

Review: Short fiction

Stories that are quirky, smart and sneaky-funny Add to ...

Canada has had a long love affair with the short story. Maybe because we’ve produced some real masters of the art, beginning with the animal tales of Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts, moving on to the stately and simple elegance of Morley Callaghan and the yappy world of Hugh Garner, to the cluster of writers who signalled the arrival of Canada on the stage of world literature in the late sixties and early seventies: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod and Margaret Laurence.

This tradition has been kept alive through the years by writers as diverse as Bill Gaston, Steven Heighton, Lisa Moore, Clark Blaise, David Bezmozgis, Michael Redhill, Zsuzsi Gartner, the criminally under-recognized Sean Virgo and too many others to mention.

In the 1990s, Heighton published a stream of books – stories, poems and essays – and soon was found on the usual lists of Canada’s sexiest young writers. He won the Air Canada award as the “most promising writer under 30.” Twenty years later, his writing remains sexy. There’s a quirky quality about his stories that’s hard to define. He has been called “deliberately unfashionable. In a good way.” It’s what makes him interesting and original.

After being distracted by writing three well-received novels – The Shadow Boxer, Afterlands and Every Lost Country – Heighton has returned to the short story with The Dead Are More Visible, a collection as powerful as the much earlier linked stories of Flight Paths of the Emperor.

It’s been more than 15 years since his last book of short fiction, On Earth As It Is, yet he has retained his ironic intelligence as well as a rugged quality that’s fascinating and hard to define. For some reason, it’s reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates, only with a gentler, sneakier humour. Heighton can write smart stories without seeming literary, while unafraid of tough stories about very unliterary people. Yes, he can be both intellectual and grunty, often simultaneously. And it’s a delight. This talent might be called a knack, but it could also be called genius.

One of his skills, so evident in Flight Paths of the Emperor, is the ability to create dialogue at cross-purposes, slightly kinked, where questions aren’t quite answered or understood, so that readers might feel they are following three different conversations between two people. Surprisingly, this can be a lot of fun.

The opening story, Those Who Would Be More, tells of a young Canadian English teacher in Japan having an affair with the school principal, who eventually fires him, but not as a lover. There’s also a scarily wise little schoolchild wandering through the narrative, a kind of innocent commentator. And a very twisted Japanese phrase book. So much in this story is off-kilter, though totally right at the same time. The eroticized school principal’s fractured English is also worth many smiles, as humour and pathos walk hand in hand toward the inevitable conclusion.

What’s most startling about Heighton’s stories is the range they can show, moving through subjects as diverse as teaching in Japan, a recovering addict on a “healing” extreme desert survival experience, a runner in his late 50s silently challenging a rude cross-country bicyclist on a gruelling jogging trail, a yuppie couple breaking up pathetically and yet with an odd grace, dissension among firefighters in a burning house, a woman participating in a drug experiment. And there are snakes too. Big snakes.

There’s also one of the most screwball carjackings ever written.

Yes, these fictions are all over the map of human behaviour: funny, scary, sad. Every narrative works, except perhaps for Swallow, in which a young woman volunteers to test a sedative. Though it exposes difficult, subtle terrain in the woman’s mind, the sedatives win in this cryptic and slow story.

The Dead Are More Visible is a fine collection of fictions, well worth reading. And watch out for the sleeping snakes – they’re a slow riot.

Brian Brett was recently recipient of the B.C. Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. His Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, won the 2009 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.

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