Sports talk is social currency, and following local teams glues a community together. In Light Lifting, MacLeod shows that such trivia is not trivial, but a way to show a profound commonality when so much else separates us, as well as a conversation starter when other subjects are too fraught. For instance, in “Wonder About Parents,” when a young couple visiting their family for Christmas spend an evening at a bar debating the best nickname in the history of the Detroit Pistons, they are proving that they still belong to the place where they grew up. Sports talk also allows them to avoid discussing their severely ill baby without clamming up altogether.
Sports play unexpected roles in many of MacLeod’s stories, as he subverts the Hollywood genre of narratives about winning against all odds on a field of dreams. His stories delve deep into how a competitive drive—an apt metaphor for all human desire—can cause risky behavior. “Miracle Mile,” the first story, sets the tone: “This was the day after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear.” The Tyson-Holyfield fight is Tyson’s “chance to go straight and be legitimate again,” but instead he “gives in to his rawest impulse.”
As Mikey, the narrator, prepares for a major qualifying race against Burner, his best friend and running buddy since high school, Mikey has to decide what impulses he will follow. He watches Burner try to shave off fractions of seconds by eating “just broccoli and spinach and Brussel sprouts all the time” and practicing “some watered-down version of Buddhist mysticism.” He remembers racing freight trains with Burner through the two-and-a-half-mile railway tunnel under the river between Detroit and Windsor. “It was one of those impossible dangerous things that only invincible high school kids even try,” and once, Burner almost lost the race and his life. “The train kept coming down on him like some massive predator and he shouldn’t have had a chance, but he was like that one stupid gazelle on the nature show, the one that somehow gets away.” The image of Burner running only seconds ahead of the train still haunts me.
Another powerful and cautionary visual appears at the end of“Adult Beginner I.” Stace, a young woman who enrolls in a swim class to overcome her fear of the water (caused by almost drowning in an undertow as a small child), has become so fearless she flings herself into the Detroit River to impress her boyfriend, then has to struggle to outswim a massive ship.
But the story is about recognizing our power to change more than it is about death-defying stunts. When Stace learns to swim, her revelation is abrupt: “In one moment of insight, an action that once seemed mysterious and impossible entered the realm of the clear and knowable.” Her newfound knowledge is tinged with regret. “She felt alone and stupid, embarrassed by the force of her [former] flawed convictions.”
Even the stories without sports references feature physical activity. “Light Lifting” refers to the repetitive motion of carrying bricks, eight hours a day, on a construction site. The protagonist of “The Loop” is a twelve-year-old delivery boy, riding arduous and scary loops in the snow on his bike. “The Number Three,” my favorite (I could write a whole review just about this many-layered, haunting, and fable-like story), ends with a man walking thirty miles in one day on an absurd but wrenching pilgrimage.
The body, and by analogy the human spirit, is pushed to the limits of endurance because it is in our extremes that we recognize who we really are. Mikey, the narrator of “Miracle Mile” compares his fellow athletes to circus freaks: “If [those long distance girls] tried they could slow their heart rates down so far you’d actually have to wait between the beats.”
In “The Loop,” the grotesque bodies Allan, the twelve-year-old narrator, encounters on his delivery route for Musgrave Pharmacy (from an elderly woman who shows him a cyst on her breast to men “twisted up with tendonitis [into] . . . a flaccid jumble”) don’t scare him. But when he has to decide whether to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a man who is rumored to be lecherous, all he wants is “to go home and be exactly [his] own age.”
The stories, at 30 to 40 pages, are long, allowing for generous dips into backstory. Many use first-person narrators with a strong, compelling voice. My favorite are poetic passages like this one from “The Number Three”:
It goes by different names. The Magic Wagon or the Grand Caravan. The Voyager or the Town and Country. Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth. A hood ornament that holds the eye. Chrysler looks like a star that lives inside your house. His daughter used to say that. His son drew pictures of the long-horned sheep. A Dodge is Ram Tough and always red. Plymouth is more mysterious: a silver ship with wind in its sails. . . The Mayflower landing on Plymouth Rock. A car for pilgrims.
MacLeod’s stories take as many risks as his characters do. “Wonder About Parents” is the most experimental, using an almost collage effect of several different parents’ stories, woven with excerpts from a 1930s text on the history of lice. The first page has 21 incomplete, telegrammatic sentences that mirror the frantic state of a parent at war with parasites. The tone, at first comical in its mania, turns dark. We learn that “lice killed thirty million people after World War I. Typhus. Jails and slums and soldiers’ barracks. Fever and stiffening joints” and see a baby hooked up to a machine.
MacLeod’s narrative arcs are also refreshingly unexpected. Some cut to black more than they end, often in the middle of the most dangerous or climactic moment. We don’t discover whether Stace outswims the ship in “Adult Swim I,” for instance, or the fate of the hospitalized baby in “Wonder of Parents.” I appreciate that MacLeod does not wrap up the stories neatly, trusting his readers instead of treating us like rookies.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me is the setting. Windsor, Ontario is both so familiar (right across the river from Detroit, where I grew up) and foreign (in a country that displays signs in both French and English). MacLeod renders iconic Detroit venues with clear-eyed beauty despite the decay. In “The Number Three,” which refers to the Big Three automakers (among other threes), MacLeod gives us a snapshot of an auto assembly line. In “Adult Swim I,” the Detroit River—full of grocery carts and factory run-off—becomes the symbol of a city and industry in decline.
MacLeod draws on a wealth of specialized information about such wide-ranging topics as parasites, running, and auto factories. But it is his understanding of our extremes of endurance, the physical as a metaphor for the spiritual, which make Light Lifting a profoundly wise book.