THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A good story -- served, thank you, without the trendier postmodernist toppings (metafictions and hypertexts on the side, please). So Steven Heighton's story collection On Earth As It Is and George Elliott's story cycle Crazy Water Boys rate as finds. Digest them story by story to make them last longer, or all in one sitting to lose yourself in Heighton's lyrical prose, Elliott's rocking-chair yarnspinning.
Settle on Heighton's On Earth As It Is (yes, the title's a truncated phrase from the Lord's Prayer) and you have elegies, confessions, reworked memoirs, and memories, set everywhere from Kingston, Ontario (where the author lives), to Kathmandu, and in every time from the early 19th century to the present.
The centrepiece is "Translations of April," a novella, where a translator-narrator translates his dead lover, April, and her stories into seven moods and memories. What begins as reminiscence and regret-tinged nostalgia transmutes into family tall tale (the deadpan humour of would-be rescuers attending a formal family dinner during a flood while pianos and dead pigs float by the windows). Then it flowers into the haunting, heartbreaking pathos of an Old Norse poem:
I buried a white rose in Erebus In Erebus under the earth all snow.
Why would you go and leave us, rob us Of our afterlife -- you?
A French memoir brings eerie visions of a beached narwhal and an Arctic mirage. There's a ghost story -- a dying sailor adrift near a Greek island is rowed to safety by an "impossibly gaunt, hairy" stranger who isn't there -- and ghostly, might-have-been extrapolations of April as a young mother, as a middleaged wife. It's translation in all senses.
Two shorter linked stories muse on melancholy, on last trysts and missed connections, what one character calls "sealedup grief." In "To Everything a Season," four related couples from different times and places play out the different seasons of lovemaking and leavetaking; in the title piece, a son must learn to mourn a father who died long before he could mourn properly. Turn from these to graveyard humour: "Townsmen of a Stiller Town" slips in a twist of the film Beetlejuice and slapstick, and a chicken-suited delivery boy confronting oddball pathologists at the town morgue.
Some images stay with you: for instance, a lone Canadian sentry in a dark mined tunnel, stilled and electrified by "the most beautiful sound he ever heard." a German soldier singing oil the other side ("The Dead and the Missing"). The prosepoem lyricism and poetic refrains linger, too. A friend riffling through these stories -- 11, counting the novella -noted that Heighton writes like a poet. Not surprising: he's an award-winning poet and former editor of
Quarry Magazine. But he's good with fiction, too (his first story collection, Flight Paths of the Emperor, was shortlisted for the Ontario Trillium Award in 1992). Forgive Heighton his trespasses: his storytelling occasionally comes out poetry, and his characters, none of them prosaic, may speak poetry as they mourn, rage, or accept earth as it is -- that is to say, not heaven.
Elliott's Crazy Water Boys aren't in heaven either, but they're somewhere nearby. Book a spot on the front porch at the Centre for well-being, a blissfully out-of-the-way haven where overachievers who've popped a gasket and wannabes who've turned into has-beens go to rock the rest of their lives away. One resident dubs the place "the Centre for Wobbly ex-Boozers" -- close to the truth, since all the "boys" still wobble from career failures, marital failures, and bouts with alcoholism. Cared for by a trust fund and an un-motherly manager they call "the warden," they spend their days looking out at the real world, muttering a combination of cusses and encounter-group bluff.
Crazy Water Boys is like an long afternoon on a screen porch with several fairly personable old geezers, none of them really off their rockers. Chapter by chapter, each reviews his life, squeezes out the sadness and nostalgia, and turns it into fiction. Meet some of the geezerhood: Stillsy (an amnesiac money-market wizard), Charlie (a terrific art director until his stroke), Zoomer (an out-of-focus would-be filmmaker), and Sart (a would-be scriptwriter and HIV- positive misogynist). Forget the details: it's truer than it needs to be that, as one of them says, "The guys on this porch, we're interchangeable. Close your eyes and listen to us. Can't tell one from the other."
Can't tell where you are, either; the Centre seems to be floating over a rural part of central Canada. A minor grumble, but it's surprising to hear that Stillsy might be sent to a hospital in Verdun. This doesn't feel like Quebec; no Quebecois words or characters slip through. Thought we were in Ontario, Stillsy.
Time -- and not much else -- passes for many chapters; for almost too long, the nameless narrator sits out rocking and telling (in first-person plural) how everyone got there. Then the agreeable haze lifts; the centre runs out of money and closes. The town cheers. The boys are thrown out. A modem unhappy ending seems in order.
But everyone survives reality, and with a wink at life and fiction, things work out; Elliott, himself a success story in advertising, politics and diplomacy, and the author of The Kissing Man and The Bittersweet Man, has performed narrative sleight-of-hand.