Flight Paths of the Emperor

by Steven Heighton,
208 pages,
ISBN: 0889841462

Sun Angel

by Chris Fisher,
144 pages,
ISBN: 1550500392

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Sense of Strangeness
by Ann Copeland

STEVEN HEIGHTON's stories are sophisticated and elegantly told. They explore sometimes with dazzling intricacy, always with imaginative verve -- the ambiguities of flight and the complexity of return. Several stories grow from the experiences of a young man teaching English in Japan in the mid-1980s. All centre about the intricacies of silence, the power of the past, courtesies among strangers, and the paradoxes of being strange in a foreign land.

"A Man Away From Home Has No Neighbors" moves from a love story between a Japanese soldier and a Chinese peasant girl (193 1), to the Theme Rooms in Osaka Love Hotel and the viewing of a Japanese war film, to the painful story of Japanese emigres to the United States. The narrator-teacher, returning to his own room late at night, reflects:

I thought of the apartment I'd left early that morning, how foreign and unsettled it always seemed because I spent so little time there. Suddenly I wished I had someone -- anyone -- beside me. Except for Hashimoto and the Principal I had few friends here, yet I wondered if someone might have called while I was out and left a message on my new machine; I thought of voices, a touch hesitant, shy and distorted, their meek invitations wasted on the empty room; I pictured sound waves stirring a few grains of dust on the tatami floor....

"Sound waves stirring a few grains of dust" -- an apt image for the delicate interconnectedness in Heighton's work. Sudden shifts of perspective collapse or create distances. The young man about to leave North Bay, Ontario, for Japan endures a final conversation with his mother:

She stopped up her mouth with the cigarette, then squashed it in the ashtray ... Smoke billowed from the dying butt, a spot of light seen from the air, a lone house burning on a plain.

The 11 -year-old boy, airborne with his pilot father above their home, looks down and sees

... another city altogether, a fabulous

and magical sprawl, like New

York ... like Cologne or Bombay or

Osaka .... I had never flown before

and now I saw that the earth showed

a different face to all creatures of the

air -- to birds, to angels, to gods and

pilots. It was the face of a foreigner

and I could not take my eyes off it.

The stories in Flight Paths of the Emperor are shot through with an intimate sense of strangeness. Flight is "miraculous, impossible"; only one flight is final. Family holds the power to pull us back into unwanted intimacies. In "An Apparition Play" a father suffers the anger of his alienated daughter as they return to Japan to bury her mother's ashes. In "How Beautiful upon the Mountains" a grandmother's funeral in North Bay prompts unanswerable questions about family dispersion and its costs. In "On Strikes and Errors in Japanese Baseball," the Osaka-based protagonist futilely searches for information in July, 1987, on the bombing of Hiroshima; on August 6,1945, a boy in North Bay turns 11; on the same date, Sonji Kobashi emerges from his hut in Hiroshima and spots, high above, a "gorgeous silver gleam against the deep morning blue of the sky"; in North Bay, grandfather lifts a glittering knife to cut the birthday cake; in Osaka, teacher and principal attend a baseball game. Such unlikely elements weave a haunting network of implication about the bombing.

This is a memorable collection -- rich with the awareness that excursion into a foreign land entails discovery of one's own foreignness. Heighton resists the urge toward closing things off in his narratives. Resolution here becomes insight dramatized, balance achieved, images so suspended that they echo in the mind and imagination to yield a book far larger and deeper than any one of its fascinating parts.

The 15 linked stories in Chris Fisher's Sun Angel offer straightforward glimpses into daily life in a small town, DoIguard, Saskatchewan, population 613. In the main gathering places -- post office, coop store, restaurant, gas station, grain elevators, hotelibar -- characters gossip, reminisce, plot, or simply exchange banter in the comfortable way of people who share a history. Fisher is at his best in dramatizing the know-all, see-all rhythms of small-town talk. In "Ruts," for example, a couple of retired farmers watch through the window of the DoIguard Hotel beverage room as a truck pulls into the back alley one rainy morning:

"It's Buster," Harold the bartender

informed the room as he turned from

the window.

"Larry with him?" asked Harve.

"Hard to tell. Windshield's too


"He'll be alone," Oly said. "Larry's on

the wagon."

"Right, Oly, and your Leafs'll win the

Stanley Cup."

"He'll be alone" gives it away -- this sense of a town alert to see, imagine, and interpret what its inhabitants are about. The story "Whispers" makes this into a narrative strategy: "we," "the town," imagine how Roy Bell, helper at DoIguard's grain elevator, was seduced by mysterious Mavis, the strutting newcomer. "Ethel Cleans House" shows us a man who, about to jump off a hotel ledge, is dissuaded by an imaginative cleaning lady.

These stories are too tidy and uncomplicated to linger long in the mind. Again and again, I found myself wishing Fisher had pressed more deeply into his characters, explored the implications of their situations, dared to suggest shadow, ambiguity. Though he commands the essential skills, he has, I think, risked too little here to generate the resonance that short fiction, at its best, can achieve.


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