Little Red Boy

Elizabeth Lowry

  • Island: Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod
    Cape, 434 pp, £16.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 224 06194 1
  • No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
    Vintage, 262 pp, £6.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 09 928392 1

Alistair MacLeod is a Canadian of Scottish descent, and, like John McGahern who has written a foreword to his collected stories, an astute observer of a very specific local setting – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; of its landscape and industry, its closed communities, quotidian tragedies and domestic disappointments. In addition, both McLeod’s voice and McGahern’s are recognisably inflected, in certain patterned stresses, by a common Gaelic linguistic inheritance. MacLeod needs McGahern to introduce him because, unlike McGahern, he was, until recently, still a writer with a small, loyal following at home, rather than an international reputation. In thirty years he has produced two volumes of short stories (these, together with two uncollected stories, make up this new book, Island) and one novel, a slender body of work that has only recently begun to attract a wider readership.

Yet if any writer deserves to appeal to a wide audience, MacLeod does. Although his concerns are given late 20th-century contexts, they are the traditional ones of the ballad and the folk-tale: love, death and friendship; the savage intricacies of family ties, the persistence of clan loyalties. Like the balladeer’s, his language rarely shades into lyricism and is always able to contain the tides of strong emotion pulling at it. The folk-tale, of course, purports to be unliterary, with its roots struck in oral or popular tradition, and typically the emphasis in MacLeod’s work is on the telling of the tale, so that we come away believing not so much that it was written as that it actually happened. In their measured homogeneity of tone, his short stories have the cumulative impact of an old saga, just as the episodic No Great Mischief, in the minute attention it pays to scene and flashback, resembles a series of anecdotes. Or, as MacLeod puts it in ‘Vision’, a gripping, telescopic narrative, part reminiscence, part clan folklore, about a love affair turned sour, ‘this has been the telling of a story about a story, but like most stories it has spun off into others and relied on others and perhaps no story really stands alone.’ McGahern’s conclusion that the short fiction, either ‘unwittingly, or through that high art that conceals itself’, introduces us ‘into a complete representation of existence’, applies equally well to MacLeod’s work in both genres. But which is it: true simplicity or cleverly disguised complexity? Although MacLeod’s writing appears to be unmarked by conscious virtuosity or literary influence, there are unmissable hints that he is keen to position it within a sophisticated tradition.

Take ‘The Boat’, written in the late 1960s, one of several stories whose theme is the essential unknowability of the people we are related to. The teller of this tale is the teenage son of Cape Breton fishing people, descendants of the Irish who emigrated to Canada in previous centuries and the Scots who fled there after the Highland Clearances. The boat of the title is a small inshore fishing vessel called the Jenny Lynn. It is named after the boy’s mother, who presides over a rigorous domestic economy, based on the rhythms of the fisheries – MacLeod is as good at detailing the jumble in a bedroom closet as he is the bustle on a wharf – that has hardly changed down the generations. You would be forgiven for thinking that this story is another charmingly unambiguous celebration of the rightness of the old Gaelic ways; something like Twenty Years A-Growing, Maurice O’Sullivan’s classic about the ancient fishing community on Ireland’s Great Blasket. But MacLeod muddies the waters of this clear deep harbour. Jenny Lynn’s husband is addicted to books, ‘very weird and varied’. MacLeod ingeniously suggests the sensual pleasures of reading:

Mickey Spillane and Ernest Haycox vied with Dostoevsky and Faulkner, and the Penguin Poets edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins arrived in the same box as a little book on sex technique called Getting the Most out of Love. The former had been assiduously annotated by a very fine hand using a blue-inked fountain pen while the latter had been studied by someone with very large thumbs, the prints of which were still visible in the margins.

One by one the seven children of the house are seduced by their father’s books. The literary enthusiasms of Jenny Lynn’s son make him as genuinely mysterious to his mother as she, with her literal horizons, is to him. In her hard handsomeness she reminds him of Hardy’s Eustacia Vye. His sea-loving family recalls the Peggotys in David Copperfield. His uncle at the tiller is like Tashtego in Moby-Dick. His mother, on the other hand, has not read a book since high school – ‘then she had read Ivanhoe and considered it a colossal waste of time.’ While her son sits at school discussing the water imagery of Tennyson, his father and uncle pass back and forth in the bay beneath, fishing their ancestral grounds.

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