I did a quick scan of this book (and certainly know Blaise by reputation) and am looking forward to it. Trevor’s enthusiastic review (the full version is here) convinces me that I can leave it until late in my Giller longlist reading. I think we have a serious shortlist contender with this one. And if the Real Jury overlooks it, I am still looking forward to it. Here are Trevor’s opening thoughts:
So here we have the interesting case of an author born in America (and who currently lives in California) finding his way onto a Canadian literary prize list for a book he wrote that appropriates the voice and experience of South Asian immigrants. And thank goodness, too, because The Meagre Tarmac (2011), one of the three short story collections on the Giller Prize longlist, is excellent.
Though this is a collection of short stories, there is a caption above the table of contents that says, “These stories are intended to be read in order.” I recommend that as well. The first three stories center around the same family, and I don’t think the third with no relation to the first two would be as strong. The fourth story takes us somewhere new, but throughout the stories refer to one another, and I believe that it is really when taken line-upon-line and then as a whole that this book succeeds.
The Meagre Tarmac is an immigrant book. It focuses on the successes and troubles of (usually) first generation Indo-Americans, as they attempt to make it in a foreign land while dealing with culture and family. They are dedicated to business and the sciences (never the arts!) and succeed beyond their wildest expectations only to find that something is missing. While this book is precisely about what I’ve just described, I want to say that I’ve purposefully begun this review with such a generalized description that sounds in many ways just like thousands of other books about the immigrant experience. Indeed, one of the characters in The Meagre Tarmac is a book editor who specializes in such novels: “They featured potent memories of ancestral homeland, twisted loyalties, religious and sexual and political schisms.” The Meagre Tarmac features all of these, but for me it is more and better, in part because of how well it delves in such a personal manner into the nature of that intangible, inexplicable something that is missing.
As I said, I haven’t read the book, but do have high expectations. I will offer some teasers however:
1. During his time in Montreal in the 1970s, Blaise joined a number of Canadian short story legends — Hugh Hood and John Metcalf (two of my favorites) and there were certainly others — in forming the Montreal Story Tellers Fiction Performance Group. For all the Mordecai Richler fans here (and they are legion as I can tell from my hits) you have to think he shared a whisky or two with Mordecai as well.
2. He is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a director of the International Writers’ Program there. Short story lovers will know that those credentials are as good as you can get.
3. And you would have to say, even from Trevor’s opening paragraphs, that there are reminders here of Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, two Pulitzer Prize winners who also explore this theme. But this author was born in North Dakota (Fargo, actually — Coen brothers’ territory), stopped off in Canada and then settled in San Francisco. The story line, as Trevor identifies, may have been explored before but he does bring a very North American background to it.
4. And I know it is not correct to invoke spouses, but sometimes the data is relevant. He is married to Bharati Mukherjee, which might supply some background context to the theme of this collection. She too has a new novel out this year, Miss New India, which has attracted favorable critical response.