Archive for the ‘Blaise, Clark (4)’ Category

Pittsburgh Stories, by Clark Blaise

May 18, 2012

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.

Southern Stories, by Clark Blaise

January 31, 2012

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.

The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts

October 21, 2011

A few weeks back, as the 2011 Giller Prize journey got underway, I sent a regular commenter here, Emily Luxor, a Chapters gift certificate so she could purchase a couple favorites — she picked The Meagre Tarmac and another short story collection, Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. She’s promised guest reviews of both — and I am posting them under her real name. Dorryce Smelts lives and works in Winnipeg where she reads extensively and works as a librarian, which gives her wonderful access to Canadian literature. Dorryce confesses a soft spot for short stories, and prefers them over novels, because in her life at present there just isn’t enough time to handle anything longer than a short story. One day she would even like to write one.

Here are her thoughts on a book that is one of my personal 2011 Giller favorites, a disappointing omission from the shortlist in my view.

In The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise’s collection of short stories longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, the reader is advised the stories are to be read in their original order. This is very good advice as Blaise has skilfully woven together the narratives of the lives of seemingly disparate individuals. Some threads interconnecting the characters are more tenuous than others, but just as meaningful and resonant, so that the stories, taken together, constitute a coherent whole.

In the first story triad, “The Sociology of Love”, “When She Was in her Prime” and “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real” we are welcomed into the intimate lives of Vivek Waldekar, his wife Krithika and their children. Blaise not only creates the environment of a successful Indian immigrant and his gifted children living in America, but also shows their heightened vulnerability, by virtue of their history of displacement, and past acts. Here, Blaise expertly combines the uniqueness of the Indo-American experience with the universality of the human condition, particularly as it relates to matters of the heart, and the particular and peculiar choices his characters are faced with. It is Vivek’s daughter Pramila, in the second story, who perceives the awful freight of her father’s past and who foretells the impact of her family’s return to India:

“I think I know what it was, back in that rented house in Palo Alto, when my father and Al Wong and the Parsi guy and my mother and the baby Beast were still in India. Al knows, Mitzi knows, my mother knows. He wants to go back to India because someone from his past, a woman perhaps, has suddenly come back. Some long shadow of shame has shaped our lives. It’s about him, not me, though I’m the one who will pay the price.”

In “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”, we read the heartbreak of Vivek’s wife who revisits the painful experience of relocating to America through her present circumstance of having to sell her house and return to India, where Vivek has gone. Blaise shows his mastery of the cultural and social aspects of Indian life and the immigrant experience as well as his versatility in reflecting the voices of his characters with honesty and fullness of their own identities.

Blaise uses identity to further explore the conflicts between generations, as with Vivek and his daughter Pramila — who says she will kill herself if returning to India means she will be kept out of Stanford — and he uses it to good effect to show how living in America, or anywhere outside India, affects the good cultural intentions of displaced Indians who strive to obey their traditions, such as arranged marriages, or to fit in within the social strictures of their adopted societies.

In the couplet of stories, “Waiting for Romesh” and “Potsy and Pansy”, Chutt is a charming and successful Parsi banker facing an unmarried future. Again, Blaise underscores the vulnerability of a single male seeking marital union with someone who remotely interests him and who is conscious that his rejection of arranged matches (eight so far) not only threatens his happiness but also the survivability of Parsi society. Chutt, like Vivek Waldekar, balances the tension between honouring his family and heritage and the temptations his adopted society places in front of him.

Blaise also introduces the finer distinctions of individuals who not only have been displaced by emigrating from India but who experience dislocation and cultural disorientation in their own country. In “A Connie da Cunha Book” the titular character lives through the invasion of Goa as a young child, and undergoes a series of identity shifts throughout her life. In this story, Blaise highlights the chance occurrences that drive the direction of one’s life, even as much as the concrete choices that are planned or anticipated. “Life is a riotous fusion. She’d always suspected that important decisions are backed into, slid into and even on occasion stumbled over.”

The Meagre Tarmac exquisitely balances the elements of a short story collection by providing complete and distilled images of characters in conflict as well as the narrative and thematic linkages that allow this collection to be treated as novelistic. Whether the stories are read individually, in pairs or triplets, or consumed at a single sitting, it is a bold and humanistic venture into the lives and feelings of Indian immigrants.

The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise

October 20, 2011

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Like many short story collections, Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac discretely announces its form with the subtle label “Stories” in small type underneath the title on the cover. For those who read back cover blurbs, the first hint that this is a collection with a difference comes from Joyce Carol Oates’ comment (“a novel in short-story form, warmly intimate, startling in its quick jumps and revelations”) and publisher Biblioasis’ own contribution of “an Indo-American Canterbury Tales”. A look at the Contents page underlines this impression: “These stories are intended to be read in order”, it says before listing the 11 stories.

I count myself an advocate of short stories, but admit that “linked” collections strike my fancy even more than conventional ones. Some linked collections, such as Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock, are historical — her exploration of her family history starts in 18th century Scotland and concludes with Munro contemplating her own mortality. Others, such as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, use a single individual and community as the common thread to link the stories.

I have just cited some truly exceptional story collections (Pulitzer winners? Chaucer? Yup) in introducing this review of The Meagre Tarmac and it is done deliberately — this impressive volume is fully up to being compared to those classics. The nature of the “link” is much different than Munro, Anderson or Strout (the Canterbury Tales is perhaps closest, but even that is a stretch) but I agree with Oates that it produces a book that is every bit as much “novel” as it is “collection” — and an important novel at that.

Blaise’s linking thread in the 11 stories is the experience of five first-generation Indo-Americans and he develops it by telling his stories in “sets” (four pairs and one trio), which is why they need to be read in order. In each “set”, the first story explores the “success” of his characters in North America (these are not stereotypical struggling immigrants), the following ones delve much deeper into the longing and compassion each feels for the India that was left behind and the continuing need to have an impact there for that “success” to have meaning. I’ll sketch out a couple of the sets to give an indication of how he does this.

Blaise is Canadian but lives (mainly) in San Francisco, which means that he knows well the impact that Silicon Valley has had on modern America — and the contribution Indo-Americans have made to that impact. The opening story, “The Sociology of Love”, introduces Dr. Vivek Waldekar, a nanotechnology expert, as he is being interviewed by Anya, “a monstrously tall girl from Stanford”, herself a Russian immigrant, who is allegedly doing a sociology project on “adjustment and assimilation” and whose interest is the way that South Asians “lack the demographic residential densities of other Asians, or of Hispanics. We are sociological anomalies.”

The following are my answers to her early questions: We have been in San Jose nearly eight years. I am an American citizen, which is the reason I feel safe answering questions that could be interpreted by more recent immigrants as intrusive. We have been married twenty years, with two children. Our daughter Pramila was born in Stanford University Hospital. Our son Jay was both in JJ Hospital, Bombay, seventeen years ago. When he was born I was already in California, finishing my degree and then finding a job and a house. My parents have passed away; I have an older brother, and several cousins in India, as well as Canada and the U.S. My graduate work took four years, during which I did not see Krithika [his wife] or my son. Jay and Krithika are still Indian citizens, although my wife holds the Green Card and works as a special assistant in Stanford Medical School Library. She will keep her Indian citizenship in the event of inheritance issues in India.

That final phrase introduces a sense of some of the personal issues that are part of the diaspora; Blaise carefully unfolds more in the next few pages. Anya’s “academic” project has a very personal agenda. Her boyfriend is Mukesh “Mike” Mahulkar, a friend of Dr. Waldekar’s son, who is headed for a lucrative professional tennis career:

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “That was inexcusable. You must think I came under false pretenses. Mike’s getting married in Mumbai in three weeks. It’s very hard, to be told, without warning, without explanation, that you’re just…unworthy.”

By all outward signs, the immigrants have adapted — but some things (like arranged marriages that are an historic part of the culture) just don’t go away. Anya’s admission provokes some introspective guilt from Dr. Waldekar:

I could not go home for my father’s funeral. I did not see my son until he was four years old and had already bonded with my wife’s family. I think he still treats me like an intruder. So does my wife. It has pained me all these years that I permitted my studies and other activities to take precedence over family obligations. I have been trying to atone for my indiscretions all these years.

Those indiscretions are at the centre of the second story, “In Her Prime”. The narrative character here is 12-year-old Pramila and we already know part of her parent’s version of her future from the first story: “We will not encourage Pramila to date. In fact, we will not permit it until she is finished with college.” Unfortunately for the Waldekars, we discover in this story that the filly has already escaped the barn — the pre-teen is having an affair with Borya, her figure-skating coach. She knows that kind of sordid behavior is typical of the child-abusing Borya and that she will soon be dumped for her even younger skating friend, Tiffy Hu, but it is from that experience that she looks back on family history and draws some conclusions:

I think I know what it was, back in that rented house in Palo Alto when my father and Al Wong and the Parsi guy were Stanford students and my mother and the baby Beast were still in India. Al knows, Mitzi [Al's wife -- the couple are the Waldekars only close friends] knows, my mother knows. He wants to go back to India because someone from his past, a woman perhaps, has suddenly come back. Some long shadow of shame has shaped our lives. It’s about him, not me, though I’m the one who will pay the price.

The tensions of the immigrant extend to the next generation. The Waldekar’s are the trio set and the third story, “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”, is told from Krithika’s point of view (her husband is back in India) — I’ll leave it to you to discover what she thinks.

Blaise explores another version of dislocation in the stories featuring Cyrus Chutneywalla of Baroda, Gujarat –”called Chutt by his Indian friends and Chuck by his colleagues at the Mellon Bank”. We meet him at The Factory Tavern in Andy Warhol Square in Pittsburgh where he is waiting for his “Wharton batch-mate”, Ramesh. Chutt/Chuck is brilliant at finance although a Wharton scandal (his “girl-friend” stole his ideas and he reported her) means that he is stuck in the backwater of Pittsburgh while his schoolmates are Wall Street successes.

Chutt is thirty four and unmarried — he also has siblings around the world (Germany and India for starters). Chutt is also Parsi, one of only 50,000 still left:

His old teacher, David Solomon, said the Parsis are the real Jews of India: a dwindling minority, huge in commerce and the professions. With so many Parsi trusts and hospitals, there are no poor Parsis.

Chutt’s doctor father has not found a Parsi match for any of his children yet and Chutt himself has already rejected eight marriage proposals from prominent Bombay Parsi families — father is threatening to head to Africa to perform free surgery to atone for his failure in properly marrying his offspring.

Blaise sets up the tension in “Waiting for Romesh” through the waitress at the tavern, Rebecca — Romesh never does show up but she picks up our hero as her “trial” boyfriend of the week and the two soon set up household in Squirrel Hill, the former Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh now being taken over by South-or-East Asian immigrants, most employed in the lucrative health industry there.

The tension is increased in the second story featuring Chutt, “Potsy and Pansy”, when an email arrives from his mother in Bombay announcing the latest marriage on offer: Pansy Batliwala, from a very good family that endowed the Dadaji Bottlewala Gardens in Bombay. Pansy is a screen actress in Canada — under the name of Darya D’Aquino — but that slip in status can be overlooked. A visit to Toronto where she is filming is suggested. As you can tell from the story title, Chutt/Chuck is about to acquire a third nickname.

The marriage tension is heightened by a new career opportunity as well. Chutt’s new boss (Ms. Harriet Mehta) is proposing a promotion to become head of Section Four (We have a Section Four? is his mental response), EAT, an Estates and Trusts division the bank is setting up in San Francisco:

“The first generation Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley aren’t getting any younger [Ms. Mehta explains]. They’ve made tons of money and they’ve invested it conservatively but they want to retire comfortably to India. They want servants and flat screens and gourmet restaurants and travel and maybe a country house and philanthropies. And they want to leave trust funds for their grandchildren. We think EAT is something we haven’t exploited.”

“Potsy and Pansy” is the ninth story in the collection and that excerpt is a precise synopsis of the over-arching diaspora thread that runs through the collection. Blaise develops it with painstaking care and I appreciated it very much since context is one of my favorite traits in reading — but I am delighted to report that, successful as it is, it is a secondary strength of this collection. The real worth of these 11 stories, and what makes them truly exceptional, is the depth of person that the author develops in his central characters, their families and the insurmountable challenges of trying to be faithful to the two incredibly different worlds in which they live and prosper. For individuals, “success” in the global economy often comes at considerable personal cost — and it is that thread that Blaise so brilliantly develops.

Clark Blaise has been a “name” in the short story world for decades — he hung out with the Mordecai Richler-Brian Moore-Hugh Hood-John Metcalf bunch in Montreal many years ago, was director of the International Writing Program at Iowa for almost a decade (that’s a holy grail in the short story world) and has been President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story since 2002. If you want to see how good the form can be — and how it can take a new direction, centuries after Chaucer — read this volume.

Obviously, I am disappointed this book did not make the Official Giller Prize shortlist — it would certainly be on mine. This review is much longer than normal for KfC (actually, the longest ever), mainly because I’d like to persuade as many people as possible to read the collection. And there is more — a few weeks ago I “gifted” a frequent commenter here, Emily Luxor, with copies of this book and Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. Stand by for a guest review from “Emily” (and the revelation of her real identity) to be posted here tomorrow. And do buy this book.


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