A young couple lingers in their car saying good night when a knock at the window interrupts their intimacy: a male voice shouts: "get out!..." From this moment on the story that Steven Heighton shared with the audience at the Fall Ottawa International Writers Festival takes surprising turns. Steven Heighton, better known to many for his novels Afterlands and Every Lost Country, or as an award winning poet, comes into his own also as a master craftsman of short fiction with his recent collection, The Dead are More Visible. With his exquisite touch for exploring the extraordinary as part of ordinary lives, Heighton creates small gems of stories, full of twists and turns, some humourous, some haunting; always absorbing. He explains that he chooses between genres to match the idea, the topic or the "faits divers" he has come across, aiming always to remain, as long as possible, as surprised as the reader as he creates the narrative. Often he does not know where a small incident like a couple in a car at night will lead him.
Each of the eleven stories in this collection is tightly scripted, yet intricate in revealing the inner workings of his protagonists' minds and actions at a particular moment in time. Heighton focuses his lens on one or a few ordinary people caught up in unusual, even dangerous situations, real or imagined. While placing his characters into emotionally trying or physically challenging circumstances, each story explores one or more themes of human behaviour, understood as a building block for what confronts us and, by extension our society and humanity.
Take for example the long distant runner in Journeymen. You almost feel like holding your breath picturing the runner who, on the other side of fifty, is taking up the challenge of a very uneven race. When you, as a non-runner, can relate to what is going on in the runner's mind, as the adrenalin in his body rises, when you feel with him the uneven ground of the track. You then realise that you are in the hands of an exquisite wordsmith and inventive storyteller.
Among eleven stories not all will capture your attention in the same way or with the same intensity. Still, all are very engaging and worth reading, as Heighton persuasively builds the narrative tension in different ways and/or introduces some surprise aspect into a story when you least expect it. In Nought And Crosses, for example, the narrator analyzes a lover's last email that suggests a hiatus or more in the relationship. It is one of the most deeply moving ex-lover's laments that you can imagine, an intimate dialog with the beloved. In Outrip, a kind of Survivor challenge story, the reader follows an increasing hallucinating convict on his five-day punishment trek through the southern British Columbia desert. Written in the second person, we participate, like a voyeur, in Ben's inner struggles and physical efforts to move from one water hole to the next, long stretches apart. His dialog with the Fisher, an either real confrontational character or one grown out of the convict's exhausted mind and body like a Fata Morgana, reveals deeper existential reflections. For me this story stands out for its depiction of the landscape as well as its brilliant imagining of what happens to the human mind when one is lost in the desert (physical or metaphorical) and a water source is not anywhere near.
The deeper Steven Heighton reaches into the inner pathways of a human mind, the more they engage the reader and trigger reflections that complement our reading. Even the more externally descriptive or action oriented stories, such that of a young English teacher in Japan, learning the language from a bizarre primer and trying to teach the children fun and games, or the title story of a woman's unpleasant encounter while maintaining an ice rink at night, develop more than a punch and never lose the connection to the inner world of the protagonists.