‘The Meagre Tarmac’ by Clark Blaise

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Thomas Trofimuk

I’ve struggled with this review. It’s late. I’ve filed it late.

You see, I’d finish writing a version of it and then looked at what I’d written the day after and realized I’d not quite captured the approach I was trying for. Or, I hadn’t quite captured the essence of the author’s stories. So I would re-write my review. I would go over my notes again, maybe re-read a couple of the stories, reflect, and then begin again.

The Winnipeg house where Clark Blaise lived from 1950-1954, on Wolseley Avenue

Admittedly, reviewing collections of short stories is problematic to begin with. There’s a pulling back to look at a slightly bigger picture – to look at the collection as a whole, rather than just focusing on one or two stories – to notice the writing, or the broad themes that might extend over all – or most – of the stories. The stories in Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac are linked. And, on the Contents page we are asked to read these stories in order. So, we get the effect of a novel but with no real commitment by the writer to the idea of creating a novel.

In the closing couple pages of “The Sociology of Love,” the first in the collection, I was gobsmacked. And try to get your mind around this damning judgement of the American institution of marriage, from the same story:

The promiscuous exchange of intimacies, which passes for friendship in America, is a dangerous thing. It is the sad nature of the terms of a marriage contract that the strongest evidence of commitment is also the admission of flagrant unfaithfulness.

Yikes! This, from a character who has not been able to steer clear of the temptation of unfaithfulness.

So, why the struggle to write this review? I think it’s because having returned to a few of Blaise’s stories twice, and a few got three readings, I found new depths, new insights, and ways of reading each time – and that’s a bit disconcerting, especially when I’m trying to nail down a particular understanding. Each time through, the stories grew in scope and consequence. Isn’t that a brilliant problem though?

I want to focus a bit on two of my favourite stories. In “The Quality of Love” we listen to Alok Nilingappa, whose stage name has become Al Neeling, an actor who finds himself in Montreal, for his brother’s funeral.  He has arrived too late and attempts to capture the Montreal of his youth – but it is barely recognizable. We get a picture of the entire family arriving in Montreal, the attempted settling and finally, the scattering of its parts. This story is a bit of a microcosm of the entire book, as it is presented in nine exquisite sections – each with a subtle shift in perspective, each with a new revelation.

“Brewing Tea in the Dark” sees a man travelling through Italy with the ashes of a dead uncle. As he struggles to find the right place to spread these ashes, he meets a woman who calls herself Rose, and who is intrigued by him. These two are drawn to each other. Regardless of the surface incongruities of disparate cultures, passion and lust are the universal translators. Just as they physically meet in the street, the urn is accidentally smashed: “…he’d wanted to find an Italian home, and now his matter lay in a dusty, somewhat oily mass on the cobblestones of Florence, amid shards of glass and ceramic. It will join some sort of Italian flux.” Later on, in her hotel room bed, this man finds out that Rose is dying. “Brewing Tea in the Dark” is barely twelve pages long and this pale description hardly touches even a third of all that takes place.

These are stories about men and women trying to span the distances between India and the U.S., India and Canada – physically and culturally. There are small revelations interwoven in these narratives that are perfectly formed parcels, and the writing is wonderfully subdued and constant throughout. In each story, we get a glimpse of a character. We see the world from diverse points of view. And we feel displacement – a profound unsettled quality.

Most of the eleven stories are not long but they explode entire lives onto the page with such a careful precision and clarity – these stories become embedded in the consciousness. Blaise draws his characters with nearly perfect brush strokes. One constant that runs across all these stories is the prevailing feeling of being part of something, a company, a country, a community, or even a family – and simultaneously, not quite truly being part of anything. These people are dislocated. The world-weary pull between cultures, and the idea of belonging is the genius of this collection, and yet, despite the stranded nature of these characters, Blaise infuses hope. There’s a quiet undercurrent of hope.

Despite my struggle to write this review, it was not because I had problems with these dazzling stories. Quite the opposite. I found this collection of stories drawn around Indian immigrants in North America to be utterly fascinating – and at times breathtaking.

Biblioasis | 200 pages | $18.95 | Paper | ISBN #978-1926845159

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Thomas Trofimuk

Thomas Trofimuk’s last novel, Waiting For Columbus, has been published in numerous countries and was nominated for the 2011 IMPAC Dublin literary award. He lives in Edmonton.