Southern Stories, by Clark Blaise

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Grant me the indulgence of explaining how I came to read Southern Stories, a collection of Clark Blaise’s early short stories, before I get to the volume itself.

Blaise’s 2011 collection, The Meagre Tarmac, was one of my top ten books of the year — a masterful collection of 11 stories that chronicles the experience and regrets of successful South Asian emigres to North America. It also served as a powerful reminder that while I certainly recognized the author’s name and reputation, I had never read Blaise’s earlier work and that it was a time to take a trip back and remedy that shortfall.

Blaise was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1940 to Canadian parents. His childhood was spent moving around North America (the Canadian Encyclopedia says he went to school in 25 different cities), before he arrived in Montreal in his mid-twenties — he published his first collections of short fiction A North American Education and Tribal Justice (the sources for most of these stories) while living there. He has lived in the U.S. since 1980 and has impressive credentials: chair of the highly-regarded Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, teaching posts at colleges ranging from Skidmore to Berkeley. He is married to Bharati Mukherjee, with whom has co-authored a couple of books — which helps explain the power of the stories in The Meagre Tarmac. For the past decade, he has been President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story; if you respect the form, Blaise is an author who demands to be read.

The Canadian independent publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, has collected Blaise’s stories in three volumes that reflect his peripatetic writing life — this one, Pittsburgh Stories and Montreal Stories. (Correction: The author has kindly pointed out in comments that there are four — World Body collects those that are not set in North America.) The examples in Southern Stories are drawn from his early collections and reflect his childhood experiences — the first was published in 1958 (my only complaint concerning this outstanding collection is that it does not tell readers when or where the stories were originally published — the data would have helped). I assume that most followed soon after — the 13 stories here represent the first works of an author whose name deserves to be linked with the best of the “modern” short story form (and, yes, many critics describe Blaise as “post-modern” but I will forego exploring that aspect of his writing).

Part of the attraction of The Meagre Tarmac for me was Blaise’s ability to capture the sense of dislocation in the immigrant characters of his stories. The examples in Southern Stories were written decades earlier but have the same strength — only in this volume, more often than not, the central character is a thinly-veiled version of the author himself.

Consider “Snow People”, at 30 pages the longest story in the book (it carries the subtitle of “A Novella”). It opens with the narrator experiencing a playground incident where he is struck by a baseball: “…he was wandering out beyond second base with a ringing in his ears, his nose smelling bone and all his side-vision gone.” He is only nine, his broken jaw will soon be wired shut and his playground experience for the next while will be restricted:

And so, standing behind the teacher as a junior referee, he found a niche that had been waiting for him though he hadn’t known it; how much better it was, keeping track of his classmates’ performances, carrying a rulebook and a whistle, than trying himself against physical odds that were obvious if unadmitted. He was a reader and speller and if it had not been a Southern school where science and arithmetic lagged behind, he’d have been a wizard there too. His place slightly behind second base or at the top of the concrete keyhole, at the teacher’s side with whistle and rulebook, was proper, though he didn’t know it yet.

Like most of the stories in the collection, that memory is set in the northern Florida swampland, before Disney and retirement turned it into a populous, overbuilt version of parkland. Yankees were distrusted, those who spoke Quebecois French (our narrator is the son of Gene Thibidault, known locally as T. B. Doe) were even further removed from the perceived norm, although it does have to be noted they were not black (the “n” word does figure in this collection). Here is how he came to be at the school:

And so they had moved from the apartment near South Street in Hartley two years before the baseball game, deep into the country to be near their airport. Airfields like this, built during the war for undefined purposes, dotted the South: an octopus of concrete hacked through the cypress and live oak in that Florida geography of sand and swamp, palmetto and cactus, behind a wall of palms.

The furniture equipment was housed in the lone standing hangar; the office and showroom in the old conning tower. The equipment — joiners, planers, saws, lathes, sewing machines and button presses — had been bought through the Citrus National Bank. The designs of Citrawood Furniture were his mother’s, who’d been trained for that much at least, and the orders came from his father, still in casts and confined to a chair, who’d sold enough on approval to satisfy the bank.

Citrawood will not come to a happy end — the bank, lawyers and co-operating corrupt local police will soon shut it down in a “raid” that both puzzles and terrifies the narrator. The Thibidaults will move on yet again (as, one presumes, the Blaise family did through 25 different locations). Their next stop is the furniture fair in Thomasville, North Carolina, where father begins the process of starting over — and moving further north to where the “snow people” really belong.

Let’s contrast “Snow People” with “Broward Dowdy” which is perhaps more typical of the stories in the book, although those themes of dislocation and “we don’t really belong here, do we?” are present in most of them:

We were living in the citrus town of Orlando in 1942, when my father was drafted. It was May, and shortly after his induction, my mother and I left the clapboard bungalow we had been renting that winter and took a short bus ride to Hartley, an even smaller town where an old high school friend of hers owned a drugstore. She was hired to work in the store, and for a month we lived in their back bedroom while I completed the third grade. Then her friend was drafted, and the store passed on to his wife, a Wisconsin woman, who immediately fired everyone except the assistant pharmacist. Within a couple of days we heard of a trailer for rent, down the highway towards Leesburg. It had been used as a shelter for a watermelon farmer, who sold his fruit along the highway, but now he was moving North, he said, to work in a factory.

It is here that the young narrator meets Broward (yes, he is named after the Florida county where he was born):

Then on a muggy day in July the Dowdys’ rusting truck loaded with children, rattling pans, and piles of mattresses in striped ticking churned down the sandy ruts I had come to call my trail. I helped them spread their gear on the floors of tarpaper shanties, and watched their boy my age, Broward, pour new quicklime down last summer’s squatty-hole. Within hours, he had shown me new fishing holes, and how to extract bait worms from lily stalks.

While I have vacationed in and visited the American South, I do not know it well — and my visits all took place well after it became “settled” and “civilized”, in the “northern” sense of the word. Despite that, Southern Stories struck a responsive chord, offering me perceptive insight into a world that I do not really know. I’ll close with some useful thoughts from the introduction to the volume that I read from Fenton Johnson, novelist, memoirist and professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona:

That we are obsessed with home makes perfect sense, of course — those people farthest from any sustainable experience of home romanticize it most — but on the whole U.S. writers are too immersed in the illusion to perceive and write out of its contradictions; our very adjective for citizenship (‘American’) presumes that we and the continent are coterminous, as if no America exists outside the lower forty-eight states. To understand ourselves fully we must turn to outsiders — to immigrants sufficiently removed from the vastness and power of the U.S. to perceive its illusions, and in writing of them to give us a glimpse of the truth that lies on their other, darker side.

Reading Clark Blaise’s stories from the South is like visiting a retrospective of a brilliant painter — one sees in the earlier work the themes that gradually emerge and sharpen. This is the great joy of writing, enough to offset its burdens. Across a lifetime a writer’s words, diligently and honestly compiled, allow his essential character to emerge, and as it emerges to shape what comes behind, a symbiosis between art and nature in which the writer shapes the clay that shapes himself.

The Meagre Tarmac introduced me — powerfully — to a writer whom I already knew had enormous talent. Southern Stories takes me backs to his roots and, in its own way and despite some imperfections, is equally powerful. It may take me some months because I want to space the reading out, but you can look forward to reading my thoughts on both his Pittsburgh and Montreal stories here in the future; he is an overlooked author who speaks to our age and who deserves more attention.

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20 Responses to “Southern Stories, by Clark Blaise”

  1. Lee Monks Says:

    Another excellent review, and a great and useful excerpt from Fenton Johnson:

    ‘…on the whole U.S. writers are too immersed in the illusion to perceive and write out of its contradictions; our very adjective for citizenship (‘American’) presumes that we and the continent are coterminous, as if no America exists outside the lower forty-eight states. To understand ourselves fully we must turn to outsiders — to immigrants sufficiently removed from the vastness and power of the U.S. to perceive its illusions, and in writing of them to give us a glimpse of the truth that lies on their other, darker side.’

    On the whole I’m assuming that’s particularly true in the case of US writers – that’s always been a kind of pervasive suggestion. In any case, Blaise is another writer that demands attention, all the more so for dealing with those fascinating ‘illusions’.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: In defence of authors (American and otherwise) I would have to say that “we are what we are” and that cannot be avoided. On the other hand, an outsider’s view is bound to add depth and hence more (or at least another) perspective. Also, with many of these stories set in pre-War or just post-War Florida, “outsider” applies to most everyone since the area was entering the era of change that produced today’s Florida (not one of my favorite places, I admit). While reading the collection I was frequently reminded of Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country.

  3. Clark Blaise Says:

    Kevin/ I read those comments with a sense of tenderness for my earlier self. I remember well the writing of those stories (as a student and early arrival in Montreal) better than I remember the events, or the atmosphere that inspired (is there such a word as “despired”? them. I wanted to mention that Porcupine’s Quill did four volumes: “World Body” includes my non-North American-set stories (mainly dealing with India).

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Clark: Thank you very much for the comment — “despired” might not be a word, but I can understand the sentiment. Thanks also for updating me on the fourth volume from Porcupine’s Quill; I will add it to the collection shortly and look forward to those stories as well.

  5. Jack Illingworth Says:

    Tiny correction — Blaise’s selected stories are actually in four volumes. The fourth, “World Body”, diverges in the structure of its title, but it’s actually the conclusion to the series, and makes an interesting bridge to “The Meagre Tarmac”.

  6. Jack Illingworth Says:

    Whoops — Clark’s comment didn’t display the first time I loaded the article. It’s still great to see a consideration of his work.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jack: I’m not sure why Clark’s comment didn’t show up, but all is straightened out now. I have ordered World Body — the description did make me think about The Meagre Tarmac, so my thanks for confirming that it does serve as a bridge to the more recent work.

    We lived in Pittsburgh for a few years about a decade back, so I am quite lokking forward to taking on that volume next.

  8. Buried In Print Says:

    I recently listened to the Quill&Quire’s broadcast of a portion of an interview with him (conducted by Catherine Bush at last autumn’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto); if you’re curious, you can listen here.

  9. Gayle Leslie Says:

    I bought the Meager Tarmac after I read your review about it this fall (Ocober?) and loved it. Ive just ordered Southern, Montreal and Pittsburg stories, so thanks for this blog. I’m sure I’ll love these collections.

    GML

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Gayle: Four volumes is a real commitment! I was not disappointed at all in this collection — to be sure, I liked The Meagre Tarmac more but this one was certainly worth the effort.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BIP: Thanks for the link.

  11. Dave Margoshes Says:

    Have been glad to see Clark Blaise getting much-deserved attention. He’s long been one of my favourite short story writers, and The Meagre Tarmac was exceptionally fine. Southern Stories and the other Porcupine’s Quill collections are ample proof of his talent and superb craftsmanship. Good to see also your reprise of Why Rock the Boat, certainly one of the funniest newspaper novels ever. Made for a pretty amusing movie too. I read the novel and saw the film soon after my arrival in Canada in and, like you, was toiling at The Calgary Herald. Having worked for several papers in the States, some big and some small, I saw plenty in both book and movie that was familiar, but still fresh. (Kevin, drop me a line, please.) – Dave Margoshes

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Dave: The comments indicate that Blaise has a devoted (if too small) following — I hope that last year’s book sparks a renewed look at his work (or, as is the case with me, a belated first look).

    I did come across a reference somewhere where he described himself as the “un-Munro”. “Un” in the sense that he has wandered the world both in life and in his fiction, unlike Alice’s creation of Munro country in south-western Ontario. On the other hand, very much “not-Un” in that both of them illustrate what can be done with the short story form. I look forward to next three volumes in the Porcupine’s Quill series.

  13. sshaver Says:

    You mention The Porcupine’s Quill….As a writer, I’d surely enjoy a post in which you discuss the top ten independent presses in Canada.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sshaver: I’m afraid that I am going to disappoint you. While I know a number of the publishing houses, my background is in newspaper publishing not books — so I know just enough to know that what I know isn’t really enough (if you can follow that twisted sentence). I am sure that in promoting some of my favorites what I would mainly do is overlook some equally worthy names so I will decline to name any.

    I will say that Canada has an outstanding stable of independent publishers who bring us authors like Blaise and others. We readers owe a debt of gratitude to them all. None of them make very much money but they are a vital part of the country’s culture.

  15. Kerry Says:

    You’ve sold me on Clark Blaise. Now, do I begin at the beginning….or start with something more recent. My inclination toward the chronological. Would you suggest otherwise? (I promise I will remember that his best lies before me…..as I did with David Mitchell.)

    Thanks for keeping an under-recognized author on the radar long enough for me to get him solidly on my TBR.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Given your background, I’d say start with the beginning because I think parts of it are going to relate even more to you than they did to me. The stories, except for the one, are not long — my new discipline of a couple at a time every few days worked very well with this collection.

  17. Dave Margoshes Says:

    to Sshaver’s question about independent Canadian publishers…

    Being a writer who dwells in the small press world, I’ll hazard a try at a list of 10, not in any particular order, and make no claims to them being the “top” ten:

    I’ll start with Coteau Books (Regina), Thistledown Press (Saskatoon), NeWest Press (Edmonton), Oberon Press and BuschekBooks (both in Ottawa) and Black Moss Press (Windsor), all presses that have published my own books; and quickly add Biblioasis and Porcupine’s Quill, Ontario presses that have published Blaise, which is where this discussion began. With room for just two more I’ll toss in Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton and Turnstone Press in Winnipeg. But there are many more, including (alphabetically) Anansi, Anvil, Arbeiter Ring, Arsenal Pulp, Brindle & Glass, Coach House, Cormorant, Douglas & McIntyre, Dundurn, Freehand, Great Plains, Hagios, Oolichan, Quattro, Ronsdale, Signature, Talon, Tightrope, TouchWood, Vehicle and many others – and I haven’t even mentioned any of the academic presses. Take a look at the Association of Canadian Publishers website for a broader view.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Dave: Many thanks for such an excellent reply — it illustrates only too well why I ducked the question in the first place. There is no doubt that Canada is blessed with a wealth of independent publishers. I know that for most of them it is a business where “heart” takes precedence over “head” — they struggle to survive but in the meantime they enable readers like myself to have access to some superior works.

  19. Dave Margoshes Says:

    “Heart” indeed! The small presses are sometimes dismissed as little more than a “farm team” for the biggies, and it’s true that, with the exception of Anansi and D&M, it’s rare for any of them to produce a best-seller (the kerfuffle over Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, published by Gaspereau Press, one I neglected to mention in my earlier post, is illustrative. After the novel won the Giller Prize two years ago, its publisher wasn’t able to keep up with demand.) Small press books don’t get the same attention from book reviewers, prize juries and book store buyers that those from the biggies do. But the fact is, they produce a majority of Canadian books and have done the heavy lifting in creating a Canadian literature.

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