The first and last stories in Steven Heighton’s posthumous collection both feature characters punching someone with unintended consequences. In the title story, which opens the book, Ray recalls his father advising him that the only way to ensure a drowning person doesn’t kill both themselves and their rescuer while thrashing around in panic is to render the victim unconscious before dragging them to shore. He puts this advice to use in an attempt to save his wife, Inge, with predictably adverse results. (She lives, but returns the blow in kind.)
The closing story focuses on Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, the McGill University student who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach in a dressing-room demonstration of the magician’s supposed superhuman strength; the blows to the gut either incited or accelerated Houdini’s death from undiagnosed appendicitis. “Harry Houdini was a giant in his field,” Heighton writes at the story’s beginning, “but failure is more interesting.”
Both “Instructions for the Drowning” and “The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead” – one of the shortest stories in the collection and the longest, respectively – traffic in failure and acts of violence that go awry; both also end with moments of hope and what the final story calls a “burnt-out serenity.”
The volume’s bookends are thematic touchstones for what might be called Heighton’s kitchen-sink Romanticism: a kind of clear-eyed recognition of the way individuals – in Heighton’s case, almost always men – move through the world while struggling, often against perilous odds, for connection and meaning. Heighton’s protagonists are frequently amblers who wander off of the beaten path, determinedly following what one story refers to as “desire lines” – those trails made by walkers who deliberately diverge from a predetermined path to follow their own wish, instinct, or curiosity.
In “Desire Lines,” this drive results in young Niko, on a forced hike with his father, falling through the ice with “a low, localized gulping sound.” The protagonist of “As If in Prayer,” a Westerner working in a refugee resettlement camp on the Greek island of Lesvos – an experience Heighton himself undertook in 2015 – stumbles across a Muslim man burying the corpses of refugees, including children. In “You’re Going to Live,” a prison guard saves the life of an anonymous colonel about to be put on trial for war crimes.
The 11 stories that comprise Instructions for the Drowning – there isn’t a dud in the bunch – exude empathy for their confused, searching figures trying to make sense of the world in moments of chaos or discord. The protagonist of “Expecting” attempts to care for his heavily pregnant wife while also trying to do a good turn for a stranger by arranging to have his lost wallet returned to him. The increasingly antagonistic interchanges between the husband and the owner of the wallet become a kind of charged battle for masculine dominance. In “Repeat to Failure,” an overly proud weightlifter at a gym finds himself pinned under a barbell close to asphyxiation while the television’s closed captions flash “sounds of laughter” to the otherwise disinterested room.
Heighton, who died of cancer in April 2022 at the summit of his literary powers, had an almost preternatural ability to divine the perfectly precise turn of phrase to convey maximum emotion from a spare, seemingly effortless prose style. He was adept at irony, carefully calibrating the distance between what a character understands about himself and what a reader is able to determine. This is profound in “Professions of Love,” in which an egotistical, self-deluded plastic surgeon attempts to remake his wife’s face following a stroke. “[T]his was for you, darling,” he tells her after she wakes from the anaesthetic. “Her smile here was ambiguous,” Heighton writes, “as if pained.” The surgeon mistakes the pain for the residual effects from the procedure; the reader is able to understand what the supposedly masterful doctor can’t: his motivation in restoring his wife’s pre-stroke beauty was born of selfishness, not altruism.
There is a piercingly human aspect to these stories, not least in their recognition, made explicit in several, that the condition of living is predicated on failure. Our loftiest ambitions often end up falling short and the world remains indifferent at best to our struggles and longings. But Heighton’s great gift was recognizing that failure and struggle render us more, not less, human. In the final line of the book, a first-person narrator, who may be Heighton himself, encounters an old man in Nepal whom he imagines to have been Houdini’s inadvertent killer. “I gave him the Nepali greeting, Namaste—literally, ‘I salute the godhead within you’—and hurried on.” It’s a fitting and melancholic line to close out a remarkable book by an unparalleled literary talent.