Ariel or Caliban?

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Chip Coooper
Clark Blaise, Southampton, New York, 2005

The Meagre Tarmac is the latest work of fiction by veteran story writer, novelist, and essayist Clark Blaise. Blaise has been publishing stories since the early 1970s, beginning with A North American Education (1973), which was followed by nine other collections, several of them having place names—Southern Stories (2000), Pittsburgh Stories (2001), Montreal Stories (2003). The Meagre Tarmac is a place name too, though it might not seem so at first. It alludes to the landing strips at airports—those long, thin layers of asphalt that cannot be inhabited, but nonetheless are where a number of Blaise’s characters in this book secretly feel they live, or indeed resemble: embodiments of promise, dedicated to fast motion and uprooting, stretched between here and there, prone to shimmering mirages.

The title of Blaise’s third collection, Resident Alien (1986), is also pertinent, for it describes how Blaise himself has felt all his life. Both of his parents were Canadian. His mother was a Protestant from Winnipeg, upstanding and tight-lipped and a great reader. His father was a handsome and charming bon vivant from Quebec—a classic traveling salesman, complete with the dubious philandering and imbibing habits such salesmen display in the jokes made about them.

The unlikely conjunction of this badly suited pair produced Blaise himself. He was born in 1940, in Fargo, North Dakota—a suitable portmanteau birthplace name for someone who would spend so much of his life covering long distances. He grew up partly in the southern United States, where he sometimes felt at home and sometimes did not. Then he was shuffled here and there by his parents, ever on the run from the financial and personal debris created by his optimistic though feckless dad. These embarrassing but fascinating situations were later recreated by Blaise in various stories, and in his memoir, I Had a Father (1992).

It would be almost impossible for such an upbringing to result in a person with a firm sense of a place-linked identity and an aversion to the packing and unpacking of suitcases. Much of Blaise’s work has circled around questions that were a little ahead of their time when he first began investigating them, but now seem highly contemporary: Who am I? Where am I? Where do I belong? Does nationality count for anything? Am I a part of all that I have met? What airport is this anyway? A couple of other Blaise titles act as compass needles here: The Border as Fiction (1990) and If I Were Me (1997).

During his frazzled childhood Blaise attended approximately twenty-five schools, which would certainly lead to quick-wittedness and a finely honed ability to spot and classify accents and social quirks and differences. His adolescence was spent in Pittsburgh, where he was bedeviled not only by high intelligence, but by what was at first called “double jointedness” but is now known as myotonic muscular dystrophy—an altogether more serious business that can have …

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