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.