‘The Dead Are More Visible’ by Steven Heighton
The things we do with our bodies are central to Steven Heighton’s utterly compelling new collection of short fiction, The Dead Are More Visible. The drugs we take, the sex we have, how we use our fists — in his thirteenth book, Heighton focuses on corporeal pursuits that include both feats of endurance and acts of survival.
Given his stature as a seasoned writer of poetry, novels and short fiction, the various components of Heighton’s authorial universe — from structure to place to mood — are marked by complexity. Despite a strong focus on character — in particular, nuanced and fully realized female protagonists — a multifaceted portrait also emerges of the “limestone city” of Kingston, Ontario, that this writer calls home.
The story “Shared Room on Union” takes place late one evening in a parked car on Kingston’s Union Street, a setting neatly illustrative of the town’s class divides — one end of the road cruises through tony Queen’s University, near the other sits one of the area’s nine prisons, the Kingston Penitentiary. Tensions between Janna, who works at a cafe, and her med-student boyfriend Justin, play out while making out in Justin’s Volvo, when they are interrupted by a thief. Heighton’s spare but energetic prose simultaneously creates tension and reveals Justin’s character:
There was a rapping on the driver’s side window, a shape bulking. Justin let in the clutch and pinched the ignition key but didn’t twist. With his free hand he buffed a sort of porthole in the steam of the window. That middle-class aversion to being discourteous, even to a lurking silhouette at one in the morning.
For Justin, such a crime seems nearly inevitable in “this city of life-term welfare and psychiatric cases.” The robber — characterized by Justin as “almost simian, mouth slack and panting under the drooping moustache” — locks the couple in the trunk of the car. A night spent in such close quarters under traumatic circumstances would test any relationship — to make matters worse, Janna is a major claustrophobe with an overfull bladder. The narrative exposes not only the couple’s differing approaches to conflict, but contrasting ways of seeing the world.
A more humanistic perspective on the city’s underclass is espoused by Ellen, a city maintenance worker whose extraordinary evening forms the basis of the book’s title story “The Dead Are More Visible.” A middle-aged loner who once attracted significant male attention, Ellen now works the graveyard shift priming the skating rink at Skeleton Park, which she describes as “a sort of open-air hostel for addicts, parolees, halfway house residents, psych hospital outpatients, a shifting population of mainly harmless eccentrics.”
Like Justin and Janna in “Shared Room on Union,” Ellen experiences a criminal threat but she successfully fights back, with results that are incredibly disturbing. But Heighton combines dramatic plot elements with thoughtful character development. The widowed Ellen acknowledges sexual desire for one of her young attackers, as part of a provocative meditation on aging and erotic self-determination even in the face of danger:
Still advancing, the leader brought his hands out of his pockets and drew back his hood, slowly, with a sort of wry formality. He was smiling, lips closed. For a moment his face took up all her view. He was shockingly handsome. A twitch of attraction plunged downward with another spasm of fear, down into her womb, twin shocks, fused and unanimous in effect. It was a cruel face, beautiful.
The female narrator of “A Right Like Yours” is assertive about her sexual desires. A boxer in training, Trina is frequently paired up with Travis, a male sparring partner who’s afraid to look her in the eye. Trav is a divorced dad and midnight-shift baker; Trina drives a beat-up Lada she can’t afford to replace. Each of them struggles with the question of whether going professional in the sport is the right choice for them, economically and otherwise. As their bouts in the ring add up, so does sexual tension. This brief story, both intensely physical and sweetly romantic, draws the reader in. All along, you root for Trina to get what she wants from her reticent, masculine object of affection.
Grappling with desire has other meanings for many of Heighton’s characters; addiction is a recurring motif in The Dead Are More Visible. In “Heart & Arrow,” Merrick, a child of alcoholics, learns at age ten to mix his own drinks with a dash of shame and a splash of loneliness, chugging his way toward his own approximation of adulthood. Ben, the protagonist of “OutTrip,” attempts to banish hallucinatory visions of his OxyContin dealer during a desert weekend as part of his latest effort to stay clean. Heighton chooses a second-person narrative view as a strategy to secure the reader’s identification with the earnest but struggling man. Despite Ben traveling so far physically and emotionally, his pusher’s sway is still unexpectedly strong:
I’m through with you. Leave me alone.
As you reach toward the wall, as you smell and feel your way toward that luscious, humid coolness, his hand grips your wrist. A painfully tight clasp.
I cull the flock, Benjamin, but I also provide a service. The termination of all pain, Ben. Pain like this! I make it all go away. And Ben, you are weak. You know it. You still need me and you know it.
In “Journeymen,” aging Cutler has replaced alcoholism with running. He pushes himself to the brink of his physical limits to prove himself when taunted by a cocky young cyclist on an outdoor trail. This level of endurance is only possible because of decades of running since a failed bid to compete in the Olympics back when he was still talented but regularly drunk. His jogging fix has managed to keep Cutler mostly on the wagon even after his son’s death, hit by a cell-phone-toting driver while running. As in all the best stories in this collection, multiple themes and plot points are juggled aptly by Heighton here, amplifying one another with a satisfying resonance.
In the closer “Swallow,” Heighton taps into his maternal family’s heritage to inform the story of a young Greek-Canadian woman who escapes pressures from emotionally forceful relatives and fidelity troubles with a WASP boyfriend by enrolling in a sedative trial with a group of other women at a shady drug-testing facility. The story’s structure and ensemble cast bear some resemblance to the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, but with more intricate character development. Heighton masterfully controls his restless character Roddy’s voice as her consciousness moves in and out of a haze from the effects of the experimental sleeping pill.
A fussy reader may stumble over instances of linguistic repetition in the text. A few stories’ characters have faces like the “moon”; a couple of different times, lovers are described as “twining” in bed. Kingston’s signature “limestone” is mentioned many times across most of the stories, but never described to put a picture in the reader’s mind. But these are quibbles. Overall, The Dead Are More Visible offers fine-tuned, imagistic prose featuring provocative plots and characters while exploring complex subjects and themes. One of the best books of the year so far.
Knopf Canada| 272 pages | $22.00 | paper | ISBN #978-0307397416