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book review
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Author Steven Heighton in Kingston, Ont., on May 4, 2010.Harrison Smith/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: Instructions for the Drowning
  • Author: Steven Heighton
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 240

The American writer and essayist Andre Dubus wrote that he loved short stories because “they are the way we live.” He was as correct as he was concise, as on the mark as Neil Gaiman was when he called such fiction “tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams.” The quality of short story, then, is dependent on the capacity of the author to build and share both a world and its characters in compact form by way of a density and purpose that also marks great poetry. The late Canadian Steven Heighton had this capacity. He is now gone. We are the beneficiaries of his legacy.

Heighton’s posthumous Instructions for the Drowning (Biblioasis, 2023) is a collection of 11 short stories that explore human relationships with the self, others and place. “Well, isn’t that everything?” you might ask. Yes. Yes, it is. To cover everything – just a little bit of it – in a slim volume takes talent. The way Heighton writes, simple and honest, is deceptive to the reader who doesn’t see, who doesn’t bother to look for, what Wallace Stevens called “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Heighton’s writing calls to mind the old whingeing line about abstract art: “My kid could do that,” followed by the inevitable response, “Yeah, but they didn’t.” And also, they couldn’t. It just looks as if they could.

Instructions takes us around the country and around the world, some places named – Greece, Cyprus, Ottawa, Montreal – and some not. Wherever the place, familiar themes connect the stories. Confronting disappointment, age, pain, harm, self-harm and mortality; managing family relationships across generations; dealing with the randomness and sometimes inexplicable cruelty of circumstance and chance. It’s all very mundane and all very profound.

The opening and titular story, Instructions for the Drowning finds a man recalling his father’s advice on how to deal with someone who is drowning as his wife sinks beneath the lake she’s swimming in. He goes in to save her, takes his father’s advice and things get worse from there. Until she is saved. Their already tenuous relationship is left intact, but further damaged. Bad advice from a parent passed down, compromising your future. There’s a universal truth to it.

In Expecting, a couple find a wallet while driving down the road and struggle to return it as the wife prepares to give birth. The story reads like Waiting for Godot, but with a wallet. It’s brilliant and plays on two senses of the word “expecting.” It’s also a thriller, perhaps a horror story, in miniature. It shows Heighton’s range.

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You’re Going to Live, a story about attempted suicide, offers a similar thriller sort of tension, but an existential sort. Terror pervades again, with a sort of eerie wisdom as the narrator observes the difficulty some have with killing themselves. “Whatever you think you want, your body has a mind of its own and you can’t make it want to die.” Once more, survival, a well to which Heighton returns again and again, makes an appearance against a backdrop of elements conspiring to do in his characters. But not all of them survive.

Death, particularly suicide, appear in several stories. Perhaps the message is you may survive life, for a time, but it’s not going to be easy. Unless you’re very lucky, which you probably aren’t. But there are ways to try. In Notes Toward a New Theory of Tears, the narrator reflects on survival and finds humanity become expert at developing tactics to grind out an existence. Reflecting on this, he concludes, “Ultimately all our activities, from falling in love to praying in church, to going to war, are actuated by personal suffering and our wish to transcend it.”

Beyond three-dimensional characters and simple, smart, true writing, the volume is full of references, obvious and oblique, which are fun to sport. Heighton quotes W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde and John Dowland. T.S. Eliot finds his way into the mix more than once, including in the cadence of the story The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead, a fictionalized account of the death of Harry Houdini and the saga of the man who infamously punched him in the stomach. Ernest Hemingway makes his way in, subtly. Brueghel and his Fall of Icarus, too.

To create so many small worlds and characters that feel so real and populate is an act of transcendence. To do it well is to offer a gift. In Instructions, the late Steven Heighton has managed both, and the gift is ours. Lucky us.