Written over four decades, Pittsburgh Stories, is the second in a projected four-volume set of Clark Blaise's selected short stories. Set largely during the forties and fifties, these nine stories, with one exception, are reminiscences about a distant Pittsburgh adolescence. The previous and inaugural collection in the series, Southern Stories, was also unified by one locale.
Blaise's prowess as a writer is evident from the outset. The opening story, "The Birth of the Blues", written in 1983, is clearly the work of a skilful, deft craftsman. A well-honed tale, it impresses with its subtlety and detail. The protagonist, young Frank Keeler, witnesses his father's humiliation before a woman who has hired him to fix her pipes. Standing before the two Keelers in her bathrobe, she reprimands Frank's father and summarily dismisses him. In so doing, she sets both father and son alight with desire, "becoming for Keeler, the prototype of all beautiful women. For his father, the most perfect bitch."
Images in "The Birth of the Blues" are intelligent, perceptive, and often funny. Blaise convincingly parlays the father's love of smoking into a portrait inflected with tenderness. "With every draw on the cigarette his breath shunted like a child's who'd been crying."
Frank's is a backwards-looking generation, romanticizing the remnants of a once glorious past. A passage about old trolley cars captures beautifully the narrator's nostalgic relationship with a bygone Pittsburgh. "ącane-seated, yellow ones that managed to look like raised elongated roadstersąThey were only in service on weekends and during rush hours, and they were to disappear completely, scrapped or sold to museums, in another year." Although firmly under the narrator's control, "The Birth of the Blues" allows the reader a look around, at other characters, and at Pittsburgh itself. Sadly, these qualities prove absent from much of the collection.
"Grids and Doglegs" and "The Seizure" were my least favourite, despite their mention on the back of the book as "standards". Neither story escapes the control of its narrator. Too often, and at the expense of natural rhythm, authorial wisdom intrudes on these stories, most notably in one unfortunate instance at the end of "The Seizure". Here, Blaise hijacks his character's dialogue in order to deliver what amounts to a mini-sermon on the transcendent merits of reading fiction:
This book happens in Paris fifty years ago, but it's today, it's me, it's you ą Haven't you ever felt that at last you've seen something final, the end of something, some definitive corruption, only to return to your own little world and see that it's just slightly less pure, less corrupt, less crystalline? ą As though everything that I can understand is radiating out from this little book, embracing more and more things that I can't understand, and I want to look away from all of it.
These are indeed beautiful sentiments about reading, and you have to admire the soul who feels this way about literature, but the instructive tone derails the reader's own participation in the story itself.
The narrator of the most recent stories, "Sitting Shivah with Cousin Benny" and "The Waffle Maker", has nothing new to discover about his pastłnothing to come to terms with, to reinvent, or re-examine. There is no mystery. He has the past pinned down. The stories are consequently nothing more than their narrator's self-assured, all-knowing recitations of events and their meanings.
The first three stories, "The Birth of the Blues", "The Unwanted Attention of Strangers", and "Identity" are perhaps the most successful in the book. This is due in part to their intrinsic merit, but also perhaps to the absence of repetition in theme and characterization, repetition which overwhelms the rest of the collection.
Similar characters and circumstances comprise this collection. "Snake in Flight over Pittsburgh", seems to be a rewrite of another, "Grids and Doglegs", resulting in a loss of freshness and energy. Elsewhere, as in "The Seizure", I regretted the dilution of an earlier story's elements. Here, the recurrence of various details and situations from "The Unwanted Attention of Strangers" (the inner workings of a furniture store; a cheating father; his evil mistress; a victimized mother; the black, former basket-ball player employee), fails to enrich the reader's understanding or appreciation of either story.
These four stories share much the same background with others in the collection: the protagonist is a pre- to late-adolescent male, usually corpulent, but middlingly so, "Fat, but without real bulk" and he's oftenł already!łbalding. The central character is frequently thwarted, straining to attain standards he has idealized, but in areas for which he knows he has no talent (the cello, drawing, chess, astronomy, romance). In story after story, we meet a boy whose parents own a storełusually a furniture storełand who often leave their son to fend for himself within a family of blue-blooded superiors.
While never identified as the same character (they have different names and ever-so-slightly different histories), the protagonists in Pittsburgh Stories are remarkably similar to one another. Rather than deepening and building on the themes in these stories, this strategy can ultimately frustrate readers by denying them the kind of evolving identification that a single, consistent protagonist might have provided. One need only look to Hemingway's Nick Adams, Mavis Gallant's Linnet Muir, Alice Munro's Del Jordan, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, or Margaret Laurence's Vanessa McLeod for examples of how this repetition of character and context can be profitably handled. In those stories, details repeat and meaning accumulates. Here, however, the reader is frustrated by a repetition of details which in the end fails to live up to the promise that they will add up to a sum greater than their parts. Admittedly, the characters in the above-mentioned stories are from books which were written as collections, and were not, as is the case here, assembled in a kind of ex post facto retrospective. This suggests the possibility that Pittsburgh Stories is undermined by the very rubric under which the stories have been collected; in other words, the project of bringing together stories merely because they have the same geographic setting robs them of their individual and collective potency.
At least four stories in this collectionł"The Birth of the Blues", "The Unwanted Attention of Strangers", "Identity, and Dunkleblau"łare deserving of any reader's attention. The canvas of adolescence in Pittsburgh, however, appears to be too narrow to sustain as substantial and diverse a selection as this is, particularly of an author with the range and talents of Clark Blaise.
Leanne D'Antoni lives in Montreal.