Pittsburgh Stories, by Clark Blaise

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I need to offer a few words of explanation before I get to Clark Blaise’s Pittsburgh Stories, because personal experience indelibly colored my reaction to this nine-story collection.

I’ve spent virtually all my adult life in Calgary, Alberta. In 2000, however, life changed for three years when Mrs. KfC was transferred to Pittsburgh. Changing countries is a challenge but that was a relatively minor adjustment — Pittsburgh Stories speaks to the much greater culture shock that we experienced.

It was a document that Mrs. KfC brought home from work that brought why that was into focus. In 1950, the population of Calgary was 125,000; when we left it had just topped 1,000,000. My adolescent and adult life had been spent in a vibrant, prosperous expanding city that, despite the inevitable booms and busts of a resource-based economy, always found the future offered more. By contrast, in 1950 the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh was just under 2.6 million; when we arrived there 50 years later in 2000, it was about 2.4 million — we had moved from a city with a constant eye on the future to one that needed to pay a lot of attention to trying to keep up with the ghosts of its glorious past.

The stories in this collection have been written over a number of decades, but all are devoted to Blaise’s memories of the Pittsburgh that he knew in the 50s and early 60s as a child and teenager. Sometimes the point of view is set in those decades, sometimes it is a look back from the present. Always, however, it is the memory of living in a metropolitan city that despite the general post-war optimism knew it was about to face decades of daunting economic challenge.

Consider this paragraph from the opening pages of “Sitting Shivah With Cousin Benny”:

The real Pittsburgh, as I imagined it, housed itself in the East End. Pittsburgh had been the dirtiest city in America, with the ugliest history. But it was also where the Gilded Age had made its money and left its monuments. I went out to the Carnegie Museum every weekend, sketched the animals and skeletons, then walked across the parking lot to Forbes Field to take advantage of free admission to Pirates’ games after the seventh inning. Oakland was the part of Pittsburgh that Willa Cather wrote about, the only part that Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley could have come from. I longed for their kind of friendship, that it might be possible to exchange books and discuss the fate of the world without having to go to New York. It seemed unfair that Oakland also had the dinosaurs, the paintings, the books, the concert halls, the universities and the students. They even had the art movies, where rumors of occasional nudity in Swedish films trickled over to us on the South Side, but usually a day late, after the authorities had closed them down.

This story focuses on the narrator’s Aunt Grace, the much younger sister of his mother who is actually more like an older sister than aunt. Grace married Uncle Talbot as a teenager, before he went to Korea and Japan and that marriage fell apart. Then, she married ‘Hill’ Billy Macdonald from West Virginia — after a few frustrating years raising chinchillas and mink, that fell apart too. Cousin Benny is the product of union three, this time to Danny Israel, a sharp dresser and salesman from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

For some young women that was 1950s Pittsburgh and Blaise paints a startlingly clear picture (just as a teaser, let me offer the tidbit that Benny will appear as a piano soloist with the Pittsburgh Junior Symphony before he turns five) of what the times were like. What makes the story even better, however, is the way he uses the story to capture what has been happening to Pittsburgh youth for decades –they need to leave “home” to survive. The narrator heads elsewhere in America and creates a good career in literary criticism, Benny’s piano career crashes but he lands on his feet in the foreign service. This is one of the stories told from the present point of view — the two meet up decades later in perestroika Moscow and share memories about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

“Snake in Flight over Pittsburgh” explores another aspect of both the city and times: being a teenager in love, mid-20th century.

Two young men — boys, really — are playing chess in a living room in Pittsburgh in the late summer of 1960. Their shoes are polished, they wear flannel pants with white suspenders, formal shirts with pearl studs, maroon bowties and cummerbunds. Their jackets are on the sofa. They are eighteen, home from their first year of college. Terry has gone from high school honours to Princeton honours. Alex has struggled through the year at Oberlin. Nothing serious; just a confimration that absolutes do exist in the world, and Terry, who plays better chess and who’d gotten better grades and who goes to a more competitive school is by all accounts smarter than Alex.

The two have been inseparable friends since meeting in eighth-grade. Alex’s parents run a down-market furniture store (that parental situation appears in almost all the stories — a reflection of Blaise’s own growing up) while Terry Franklin’s father is a research chemist at Westinghouse, so the friendship has some tension.

Alex resents anything that separates him from communion with the Franklins. He resents being shorter and slower and less-co-ordinated, less intelligent and clean-featured, less noble and religious, less hard-working and clearly committed, less universally admired, less socketed in the community. He resents the smells of his parents’ apartment, the stale, bluish air, and having parents — nobodies from nowhere — who smoke and leave their bottles around the house, who wouldn’t mind if he smoked and drank, and give him no credit for choosing not to, who’ve failed so miserably in so many undertakings.

The Franklins go back at least five generations in Pittsburgh, and none of them, apparently, has known a Pittsburgh life of millwork, squalor, black-lung, or Catholicism. Hardly any of the aunts and uncles and sturdy, reliable cousins that Alex has come to know by the dozens in the past five years, smoke, drink, or even swear.

The reason the chess-playing boys are dressed formally is that it is the wedding day of Terry’s twin, Francesca, to a senior from Harvard — she’ll be skipping going to university for a few years until she has started a family. Blaise delays the reveal a bit in the story but it is no spoiler to say Alex has even stronger feelings for Francesca than for his friend Terry. And I have only started on the “strong” feelings that permeate the story….

I seem to have fallen into a string of “city” books lately. John Lanchester’s London in Capital and Teju Cole’s Manhattan in Open City both impressed me with the way they brought to life cities that I love. Pittsburgh ranks not nearly as high on my list of favorites — but I have to say that Blaise does every bit as good a job of portraying what growing up in that city was like in the mid-20th century.

I should offer a note of warning that in some ways the two stories that I have chosen to explore are in some ways not typical of the collection. They come relatively late in it and feature an older narrator — earlier stories, while every bit as careful in their portrayal of Pittsburgh, tend to be grittier and perhaps more tightly focused on the narrator’s parents and friends since he is much younger.

This is the third Blaise collection reviewed on this site (here’s a link that will take you to the other two, The Meagre Tarmac and Southern Stories). He is now in his 70s and it took me a long time to get to reading this outstanding short story writer — it was worth the wait and I look forward to the two remaining collections that I have on hand.

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13 Responses to “Pittsburgh Stories, by Clark Blaise”

  1. Catherine frm Hamilton Says:

    Looking forward to reading this. I, too, grew up in Pittsburgh in the 50’s and 60’s. I would recommend Annie Dillard’s memoir on her growing up. In a more affluent part of Pittsburgh. Can’t recall the title.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Catherine: I was going to mention Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood in the review, but was sure someone would give me the opportunity to do it in comments. It is a favorite of mine as well — she does come from more affluent stock, but her memories fit well with Blaise’s fictional ones. The two books provide an excellent illustration of the challenges that that generation of Pittsburgh youth faced, by they rich or poor.

    I read An American Childhood more than once before I started blogging so there is no review here. I did convince Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes to read and review it — you can find his thoughts here.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Off topic, but have you seen the series Case Histories yet (based on the novels by Kate Atkinson)?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I haven’t seen it — looked at the description a couple of times but decided to pass. I’ll probably order it eventually.

  5. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    Two things particularly interest me about this collection and your review. First, your comparison to Open City is intriguing as I enjoyed both your review of Cole’s novel and the novel itself. More strikingly (as I already know you have great taste), I had not really considered the difference in culture between a city exploding onto the scene and a city in stagnation (if not decline). Just typing that makes it obvious that there would be a difference, but I had not really considered just how much of a difference that sort of economic/population contrast would make.

    As for the needing to leave “home” to survive/thrive, that is something (rural NC) with which I can definitely identify.

    I’ll have to put this one on the list.

    Kerry

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Given your NC background, order the Southern stories at the same time — I am quite sure you will find echoes of your own rural experience there (although most are set in Florida). In both that volume and this one, there is a consistent autobiographical thread and rough chronology but that means it is fairly easy to cast about — the stories definitely do not have to be read in order.

    My comparison with Open City might be a bit of a stretch, but I don’t think so. The narrator there is very much an outsider, on a voyage of discovery (with a lot of reflection as well). Blaise and his family, in their own way, are equally outsiders — there were phenomenonal forturnes generated in Pittsburgh prior to 1950 (and equally impressive legacies left that survive to this day) but even when the young Blaise was there they were effectively fixed in time. Even then, his family was very much in the lower part of the social order — but given Pittsburgh’s working class history that meant that had a lot of fellow travellers. And, of course, given that he wrote all these stories long after leaving Pittsburgh, they too are a product of reflection and memory.

    • Kerry Says:

      Thanks, Kevin. I do recall your positive reviews of Blaise for the Southern stories and that they would probably resonant with me on a personal level. You have me very intrigued, both with the idea of exploring Pittsburgh and the interesting dynamics going on there and with those Southern outsider dynamics. Both sound like they will be mostly different from my own experience (which is a good thing), but both sound like they will touch on themes common to my own experience (or comparable, anyway) in ways that will personally engage me. Thanks for keeping Blaise on my radar.

  7. Dave Margoshes Says:

    Glad to see you continuing your exploration of Blaise, a long-time favourite of mine. And, and the same time, a further exploration of the short story form, of which Blaise is a master. This is a good opportunity to suggest a couple titles to you: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander; and Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky.

    Englander is one of the stars of the new generation of Jewish American fictioneers – his novel The Ministry of Special Cases was a big hit a few years ago. This story collection comes heavily hyped – the back cover blurbs, from some of is JA cohorts, make it sound like he’s the new Cheever or Updyke. Or Carver, whose famous story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” he so blatantly riffs off. I found the title story particularly disappointing – it riffs off Carver, but doesn’t tear a patch off that master, and fails to deliver even on its own terms. And because it was the first story, it set a bad tone for what followed. But I gradually warmed to the stories – an uneven collection, for sure, but there are some flashes of brilliance in here. I think you’d enjoy this, Kevin, especially in light of your recent Richler readings.

    The Wangarsky collection is very different. This St. John’s writer, a journalist by day, has been making a name for himself lately with a novel, nonfiction book (about volunteer firemen), and an earlier collection. Whirl Away is a well chosen title for this group of stories, which share a circular kind of narrative strategy. There’s very little forward motion in these stories – most of them are devoid of plot in a conventional sense. Rather, the narrator perches himself on the shoulder of the road encircling a situation and peers deeper and deeper in. Sometimes this is satisfying (it can really get the reader under the skin of characters), sometimes not. There’s nothing original about this narrative approach, but I can’t recall a collection in which it’s used on so many stories. To take this tack, especially so early in a writer’s career, involves a big risk. Not everyone’s going to, like this book; I think you will, Kevin.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Dave: Many thanks for the suggestions. I did read (and enjoy) Englander’s novel a couple years back and recall reading something about this collection. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Haven’t heard about the Wangarsky. Your comment came at a perfect time as I was just putting together a book order, so I’ve ordered both — it may be some months before I get to them however.

    I’m still working on my “short story” discipline but so far find that alternating contemporary and older collections (actually have one of each on the go) seems to work for me. Current ones are Steven Heighton’s new collection and Larry Watson’s Justice, which is variously described as collected fiction or a novel — I haven’t read enough to decide which label I’d apply.

    I’ll keep your two recommendations in mind for my contemporary grouping. In addition to keeping on with Blaise, I also want to revisit Hugh Hood on the historical front. He was a personal favorite back in the 1970s and I am interested to see how his stories have weathered with time.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating opening contrast there Kevin. Pittsburgh for me is a city I always connect with a sense of industrial decay. Not because I’ve ever been there, but because it seems so often depicted that way in US cinema.

    There is a temptation to city books (didn’t Trevor review Berlin Stories recently in that vein?), and I find myself somewhat tempted by this one. I’ll reread your other reviews though before taking a final decision.

    What do we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank unsold me with the title, perhaps unfairly but it smacked of gimmickry.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Parts of Pittsburgh certainly illustrate industrial decay. But others (particularly the university district) are vibrant and interesting. It is a city of contrasts and Blaise does an excellent job of capturing them — even if some of the stories were written decades ago and the process was just starting.

    As you know, I like “city” books, be they novels or story collections. I’m looking forward to getting to Blaise’s Montreal stories. I don’t know the city nearly as well as I know Canada’s other major cities and, as an Anglo, always felt somewhat out of place when I visited (usually for business reasons) in the last few decades. Mrs. KfC is on a board of a company headquartered there and makes regular visits — I’m hoping I will be able to convince her to try the Montreal stories and weigh in with her opinion.

    If you are looking to start with Blaise, I’d recommend The Meagre Tarmac, even though it is the most recent. Given your global travelling for both pleasure and business, I think you would find his take on the (successful) immigrant experience one that you have encountered. Certainly one of the things that I have found of value in the three collections that I have read so far is the way that he includes some linking “themes” in each one, even though the stories generally stand alone.

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