||Back to the Heart
by David Homel
Romanticism and morality are central to Steven Heighton's approach to art and life
SOLDIERLY FATHERS INHABIT much of Steven Heighton's fiction. These fathers are men of the cloth and the military, disciplined and stem, but they also happen to be the possessors of some pretty big stories. The soldiers have their memories of the heroism and horrors of war, and the ministers can trot out the Apocalypse at a moment's notice. Together, they offer a combination of lyricism and morality -- which is how you could sum up most of Steven Heighton's work to date.
In a Greek restaurant in Kingston, Ontario, with the owners conversing loudly at the bar in Heighton's mother's first language, which he himself does not speak, he freely confesses to being a romantic -- both in his art and in his life. But what use could romanticism possibly have in 1995, in this most unromantic age? "It's the same as it ever was," says Heighton. "Romanticism started out as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. Now it's a reaction against the domination of the cerebral way of looking at the world."
The sin of postmodern writing is the sin of hyper-cerebralism, according to Heighton; the tongue may be involved, but not the rest of the body. In life, the result is the separation of the body and the emotions. In literature, it has produced the reigning school of brittle, self-conscious, smart-alec narrators who fill the pages of much current Canadian fiction.
Heighton has two weapons at his disposal in his war against cerebral postmodernism. The first is good, old-fashioned storytelling, which he believes fulfils a need as old as humankind. The second is the human body itself. He's on a campaign to bring its physicality back into writing; "the centre of psychic gravity" is a phrase that runs through his conversation. Heighton's crusade is to transfer that centre from the head back to the heart, and to write from a sense of physicality. So when it's time for a break from the typewriter, Heighton's choice of music is obvious: Johnny Cash or Tom Waits. A couple of big voices, thick with pain. No techno-pop for him.
In "Apollo I and the Flight from Emotion," an essay published in Brick, he quotes Pablo Neruda: "The word / was born in the blood." Here he lays it all out: this is an exuberant plea for emotion, for an end to mind-body duality, a complete utopian program that no one could argue with -- though following it would be no easy task for most of us.
Although he's thought of as an "up-and-coming" fiction writer and poet at the age of 33, Heighton has chosen a pretty unpopular path for himself. To make matters worse, he's not afraid to use the M-word. "M" as in moral, though he does put a different spin on the meaning of that big, misunderstood word. His interpretation doesn't entail obedience to the laws of proper social conduct; like many moralists, he begins with an attentive examination of his own failings. The morality that interests Heighton is the one present in writing, and for him, "moral" means "generous." Readers can't bond with a writer unless he or she displays full generosity -- toward the characters, and towards language itself. Who would want to trust a person who shows contempt towards his or her creations? The bond of trust between reader and writer is essential for Heighton. He has no use for novels in which the author makes a mockery of the characters and invites the readers to do the same, so that both parties may feel wittier and better about themselves in the process.
But what Canadian writers display this kind of moral generosity in their work? Heighton grasps for an answer, but it does not come.
HOW DID a young man of such antiquated tastes get his start? Steven Heighton was born in Toronto of a Greek mother and a father whom he affectionately calls "a righteous Scot," a Navy man who was both father and soldier, teacher and preacher. Heighton grew up in Red Lake, Ontario, in the north, where his father took a teaching job. By his high school years he was back in the Toronto suburbs, but not for long. He took to the road, heading through western Canada, then continuing on to Australia and Japan. Along the way, he managed to pick up two degrees from Queen's University in Kingston. As for Japan, the country starred in his first book of stories, Flight Paths of the Emperor, published in 1992 by The Porcupine's Quill.
Since then, Heighton has happily come to rest in Kingston, and the place plays an important role in his new collection of stories, On earth as it is (believers will recognize the line from the Lord's Prayer). Some of the new stories make use of the loneliness of Canadian Shield country, which is as good a place to be a moralist as anywhere else. In "Townsmen of a stiller town," Tris Leduc is driving around a town that could be Pembroke, Ontario, in a chicken suit, delivering for the Pickin' Chickin' franchise ("tastiest southern fried chicken in the Great White North," runs their slogan) and dreaming of escape. One evening, he gets the delivery call from hell: an order to be delivered to the town morgue, which is filled with the most overthe-top collection of living creatures not to mention the departed. But all ends relatively well, since the story culminates in Tris being able to get out of the town he desperately wants to flee. In the background, you can almost hear the wailing of the Tragically Hip, another group of Kingston romantics.
To hear Heighton tell it, Kingston is a good place to write because of the surrounding landscape's resistance to human incursions. "By now it's a cliche, I suppose, to say that we do not belong on the land -- but it's true! I like the Shield landscape but it scares me; it's so inhospitable, so incurious. I think there's that sense of lostness and not belonging in a story like 'Townsmen."'
The manic humour of this story is awe] - come new direction for Heighton, who has a tendency to wax high-lyrical -- "my gushiness," he calls it. But it will have to keep company in the same collection with "To everything a season," an elegy to three pairs of lovers that first appeared in Alberto Manguel's anthology of erotic literature, The Second Gates of Paradise. The miracle of carnal attraction is the story's theme, and Heighton is at his strongest when he conjures up not today's ambiguous styles of romance, which he presumably knows better, but those of the past, both in this century and its predecessor. Perhaps stories from another time leave greater room for his natural lyricism.
"It's true I have a bardic streak, like Wait Whitman or Dylan Thomas," he says. "But since I'm not a genius like they were, I can't get away with it -- and even they don't sometimes. So, draft after draft, I have to keep reining myself in. That's where I depend on John Metcalf, my editor. He helps me put the brakes on."
In Heighton's work, the past is never very distant. He is a writer of historical fiction, something there is precious little of in this country. The stories in Flight Paths of the Emperor play upon the befuddlement of a Westerner living in Japan, with advertising signs on an Osaka street that feature lines like "English language made not exactly easy but helpful for your better life." But instead of building the stories in that book on the easy, self-conscious humour of an innocent abroad, Heighton exploits the crisscrossing versions of history that arise whenever cultures collide,
whether in war or peace. The Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese army's 1937 sacking of Nanking, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are all present at the table when the culturally confused narrator of the stories in Flight Paths sits down to engage in exchange with his Japanese friends.
OFTEN, Heighton's young male narrators are first exposed to the mechanics of making moral decisions through family stories from the past. In "The dead and the missing," also part of the new collection, a boy learns the value of courage, not from his father, but from the preceding generation: his grandfather, who once spent a night alone in the darkness in a mined tunnel, during the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge. The phenomenon is familiar. While our parents are busy with the daily business of bringing up the children, our grandparents can be gateways to experiences that go beyond the alternating pattern of censure and praise that children and their parents fall into. Knowledge is always close by, but the child has to escape the parental cocoon to get it.
And so the young narrator in "The dead and the missing" begins building his moral vision of the world from his grandfather's tales. Heighton himself turned to a less obvious source: Thomas Hardy. Yes, Hardy, whom everyone read at university and most of us forgot. "I loved Jude the Obscure. It was an important book for me. You feel that Hardy really cares about the characters, and the very obscure Jude, even if they aren't perfect the way he, the writer, is. There's an unhappy ending, but it's given dignity."
Issues of judgement always arise when Heighton talks about writing. He likes to quote Ibsen's line: "To write is to sit in judgement of oneself." He admires Mavis Gallant, despite her coolness, and praises her by saying, "She doesn't judge her characters in any way that she wouldn't judge herself."
All this talk of judgement might put off some people who, at one time in their lives, felt judged and didn't care for the experience -- especially it' judgement was called for. Judgement in the Heighton universe is a form of intelligence applied to the world, the act of taking a personal stand, without which there is no art of any kind. In "'Me patrons," a Cambodian dishwasher named Ravuth allows himself to get drunk in order to miss his brother's gallery opening. The sense of unfinished business between them, left over from the bad old days in their native country, makes it physically impossible for Ravuth to join in his brother's triumphant evening. Heighton's method of judgement is not to form a common front with the reader in order to censure Ravuth, but to illustrate the predicament and Ravuth's way of avoiding it. With that intelligence, readers will presumably take whatever stand is appropriate to them.
MENTIONING Steven Heighton's name, at least in the eastern half of the country, can elicit some pretty odd reactions. "He's too ambitious," I was told by other writers. "He's too successful at too young an age. He's too good-looking."
Good-looking men aren't my specialty, but I do know it's hard to blame someone for their facial features; in some quarters, that's known as prejudice. At the same time, Heighton does have an instinctive sense of how performance works. At a reading at the National Library last November in Ottawa to celebrate the publication of his poetry book The Ecstasy of Skeptics (Anansi), he was a picture of dramatic concentration as he recited from memory, eyes closed, fists clenched. Some in the audience found this kind of presentation over-rich, but what writer is truly himself on stage, in front of the microphone, in the spotlight? When he steps off the boards, Heighton is humble and humorous about his work, and quick to deflect praise away from his own efforts.
It is true that Heighton has enjoyed some success early in his career. He won the Gerald Lampert Award for poetry in 1989, a gold medal for fiction at the National Magazine Awards in 1992, and was featured prominently in the Journey Prize Anthology. But, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett's reaction upon winning the Nobel Prize, none of this is his fault. And were you to squeeze into his cramped apartment on the ground floor of a building on a busy downtown Kingston street, you'd quickly lose any illusions about his ambition for anything else but writing. The place is an amiable mess, the picture of a graduate student's digs. The truly ambitious writer would move to Toronto -- but "No, thanks," Heighton says. Financially, that would be impossible, he admits, and besides, the distractions would be monstrous. The main Toronto sport is approval seeking, Heighton suggests, which is the opposite of fiction-writing, and this kid knows enough to stay out of that particular candy store.