Trevor reviews The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise

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.

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5 Responses to “Trevor reviews The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    British readers may be interested to know that The Meagre Tarmac is now available in a Kindle edition.

  2. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Thanks for passing on Trevor’s review and for the interesting background comments you have added. The title is hardly alluring is it? Perhaps more bluntly one of the least enticing titles I have ever come across. Perhaps readers could suggest others that have been equally offputting?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I too find the title odd — I haven’t actually checked the book yet to from where it comes.

  4. Clark Blaise Says:

    May I insert a word or two? Thank you, Trevor, for the thoughtful words. The Meagre Tarmac refers to the narrow, bumpy small town airports in 1960s’ India from which most of the characters in the book launched their careers. As to my relationship to Canada and the US; I was born in ND to a Québec father and a Manitoba mother, but I was conceived in the banlieux of Montreal in the worst month of the worst year in the 20th century: September, 1939. My mother was nearly 40. She would do anything to save me, since Canada had already entered the War and Quebec was not supporting it, and the US looked like it would never enter. And in that same month, my mémère, who’d been living with them, died. My father was freed from his own narrow tarmac, to take on a new adventure. Clark Blaise

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Clark: Thank you very much for the explanation of the book’s title (which does make sense) and the expanded account of your history — which very kindly did not make critical reference to some of the conclusions to which I had jumped. The additional information is very much appreciated.

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