Light Lifting
By Alexander MacLeod
Biblioasis 2010
Review by John Palen

If you want to know what it feels like—really feels like—to footrace a train through the Windsor tunnel or stack bricks in the sun until your sunburn oozes and bleeds, Alexander MacLeod has the imagination to take you there. His debut short story collection, Light Lifting, builds perfect stories around these and other extreme situations that leave you wondering, how in the world did he know that? The story in which the train-racing incident occurs, "Miracle Mile," is about competitive long- distance runners and best friends Burner and Mikey. Burner comes from behind to win a big race. Mikey finishes fourth but finds that watching Burner win means more to him than he knew himself to be capable of. Many writers would—and could—have stopped there. But in a typical move, MacLeod gives the story a dark turn. Challenged after the race by some kids on bikes who don't even know who he is, Burner finds it impossible to turn off the competitive juices. As the story closes there's trouble ahead, and it's bad.

The title story, which takes place on a construction site and in a bar, takes a similar turn, as does "Adult Beginner I," in which lifeguards party after work by diving from a hotel roof into the Detroit River. MacLeod puts you inside such over-the-top situations and makes you believe they're happening to you, in stories that are impossible to put down.

Amid the flowering of flash fiction, the seven stories in Light Lifting are on the generous side, 30 pages or so, but never seem slack or padded. MacLeod skillfully handles pacing and flashbacks, and every word counts. He has fellow Canadian Alice Munro's gift with a story line that seems—but only seems—to meander.

MacLeod also has an astonishing range of characters, tone and subject matter. While dark stories built around young people in crazy situations grab and repay attention, he is just as good at more commonplace plots—a young couple struggle with the illness of their first child; a retired auto worker struggles with grief compounded by guilt; a group of "Good Kids" learns to accept a strange newcomer, then turn on him, then are reconciled again—and with more hopeful and even humorous resolutions.

MacLeod was born in Cape Breton and earned degrees at University of Windsor, Notre Dame and McGill. He teaches at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Light Lifting, published last year by Biblioasis, was a finalist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. This is a great collection of stories. Read it and keep eyes peeled for the next.

© John Palen, 2011