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All the Men Are Sleeping

by D.R. MacDonald

D.R. MacDonald is a writer of enormous talent, skill, and, it seems, patience. Like Alistair MacLeod, he hails from Cape Breton, the setting of most of his stories. Also like MacLeod, who at 66 has published only four books, he seems in no hurry to write. From 1969 to 2000, MacDonald, now in his early sixties, published only one story collection, Eyestone, and one novel, Cape Breton Road. MacDonald’s second story collection, All the Men Are Sleeping, shows that the force Joyce Carol Oates identified as driving MacLeod’s work – “the urge to memorialize, the urge to sanctify” – also compels his own.

Comparison with MacLeod is unavoidable. Both have forged careers from brooding, tortoise-like consideration of their Maritime birthplace. Both write with Gaelic musicality. Both tell stories primarily of working-class men – miners, fishermen, mill workers, farmers – struggling with globalization’s threats to tradition. Both see women as mysterious, forceful figures.

Where they part company is disposition. Where MacLeod often sentimentalizes, writing mostly in the first person and lacing stories with nostalgia and clichés, MacDonald documents, opting mainly for third-person narration and trompe l’oeil realism. When kept in check, this works to his favour. Stories such as “Ashes,” an O. Henry Award winner about an old man confronting a bulldozer on property he once owned, and “Work,” about two aging quarry labourers, strike a virtuosic balance between detail and characterization that gorgeously lifts the narrative off the page. They’re as strong as anything MacLeod has written, better even, because they contain not a speck of sentimentality.

Other stories – “The Flowers of Bermuda,” about a lobster man facing the death of a beloved reverend, and the title story, about a doctor’s journey through a blizzard to a dying man – while also wholly unsentimental and bolstered by brilliant characters, contain passages so heavy with detail that they stifle the reader’s imagination, a mistake MacLeod rarely makes.

Great fiction often lies at the nexus of past and future. Like two paths criss-crossing the same woods, MacDonald and MacLeod are determinedly working to record Cape Breton – a Cape Breton – before it disappears. Both find elegiac brilliance in their forsaken island.