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.