By Alex Carey
For a former runner, Alexander MacLeod is a meticulous writer. His first short story was published at the tender age of twenty-one, and his first collection arrives from Windsor-based Bibiolasis more than two decades later. In between, it should be noted he was no slouch: picking up a Masters from Notre Dame, a PhD from McGill and finding work teaching Creative Writing and Atlantic Studies must take some focus and energy. And focus and energy are definitely the core forces at work behind his imagistic prose.
These seven stories, none of which feel over-written or synthetically literary, are centered with intensely vivid imagery and a writer’s compassion for characters’ courage in the face of futility. There are runners who race just below the line of glory and adoration (“Miracle Mile”); there is a young family struggling to survive a road trip from Hell along Canada’s notorious Quebec-Windsor corridor (“Wonder About Parents”); a bricklayer fights temptation in the midst of Windsor’s runaway housing boom (“Light Lifting”); a swimmer dodges traffic in the putrid Detroit River (“Adult Beginner 1”). Macleod threads fear, compassion and an overall human dignity to characters backed into the undignified corners of contemporary Canada—mostly Windsor.
The minutiae, the finest details—like the difference between a mile run in 2:36 compared to 2:39—break and define Macleod’s figures. “We are made specifically by what we cannot bear to do” he muses in “Adult Beginner 1”. To quit competitive running, to swim a width of the pool, or pack up and move out of immensely tragic circumstance, Light Lifting is defined by what we fear the most. This is perhaps the most obvious in the first story, where the two runners and lifelong buddies run through the train tunnel from Detroit back to Windsor beneath Detroit River. The train looms as a manifestation of collected anxiety, an ironic white light behind you in the tunnel. But the runners don’t fear the train as much as they fear quitting—the ultimate loss. As much as Macleod’s fiction is pumped through the human body’s frailties and excesses, his world is almost an entirely urban and industrial space. This is a Windsor of a housing boom witnessed by an eclectic and ultimately violent work crew in “Light Lifting”, and in “Good Kids”, when the baby boom house expansion becomes irrelevant amidst another, bigger, wave of suburban sprawl and human demand. Light Lifting is both a critique and now an elegy for a disappeared city.
Macleod was a surprise selection for the 2010 Giller Shortlist, but that’s probably only because he didn’t market his book to death. In interviews he seems to almost find it funny, the mini-flood of publicity the collection earned him. If that cheeky sensibility only serves to keep him grounded in the flesh and bones of both his characters and the intensely urban environment they inhabit, then so be it. If it means we get treated to a collection as memorizing and layered as Light Lifting, Macleod can be as bemused by his success as he wants.