Like many authors largely focused on the short story form, Clark Blaise is known more by reputation than for his accomplished and eclectic body of work. Though his fiction explores questions of identity, ethnicity, and cultural and geographic displacement – themes that loom large in the contemporary zeitgeist – it does so through decidedly untrendy and resolutely literary techniques. The Meagre Tarmac, his new collection of connected short stories, elevates issues of shifting, pan-ethnic identity into a binding motif by confining the stories’ protagonists to a single, dispersed community: middle- and upper-middle-class Indians who have emigrated to the U.S. (and in a couple of cases, Canada).
Blaise’s Indian-Americans are educated, ambitious, and class-conscious. They work in banking, technology, engineering, and the film industry. The immigrant generation depicted here, now mostly between 35 and 55, are typically alienated from their parents back home, who judge them too American, and their teenage or newly adult children, who chafe under the imported Indian strictures of caste, gender, and sexual morality (public sexual morality, that is – there are plenty of affairs and other unsanctioned couplings across the age spectrum).
These immigrant family tensions may sound familiar, but Blaise’s psychologically probing style, mordant wit, and utter lack of sentimentality subvert expectations for the most part. The stories are also mercifully bereft of the exotica and saffron-scented stock characters of the typical Indian family saga. No lovable family servants here, no scheming aunts or betel-juice-spitting uncles, no Bollywood romance: instead Blaise deftly traces his characters back to their historical and cultural origins, uncovering the comedy and human loss contained in the Indian subcontinent’s mix of ethnic, historical, and familial loyalties and betrayals. Blaise’s characters are shot through with pathos and a decidedly modern capacity for duplicity.
Blaise does not shy away from the at times repugnant prejudices of caste and gender that buttress the proprieties of upper-middle-class Indian life at home and abroad. Much of the stories’ wit is mined from the cognitive and emotional dissonance that results when an older generation committed to propriety is forced to confront the bold American rejection of overt social mores.
In the opening story, “The Sociology of Love,” a middle-aged Indian scientist is visited in his family home by a scantily clad female sociology student researching immigrant attitudes to adjustment and assimilation. His eyes are drawn to the body beneath her tight T-shirt, a temptation he fights off with stern pieties: “the promiscuous exchange of intimacies, which passes for friendship in America, is a dangerous thing.”
Dangerous, indeed: as the story progresses, the reader discovers that the student has possibly been involved with the scientist’s son, and that the scientist himself had an adulterous affair decades earlier while awaiting the arrival of his family from India. The cost of such promiscuous exchanges is exposed in the following two stories, narrated by the scientist’s wife and 13-year-old daughter, respectively.
In other stories, Blaise looks beyond these generational conflicts to the new class of international business people who ride the crests of the global capitalist order, probing their slick rootlessness and polyglot sensibilities. Yet even as they are whisked between glass and steel towers and airports, these cosmopolitans are pulled back down to earth by old duties and identities.
Blaise is occasionally guilty of imposing a rigid thematic unity on the work. There are a few too many easy contrasts duly noted by both Indian and non-Indian characters, and too many internal monologues in which narrators ponder their tangled ethnic roots. In “Potsy and Pandy,” an otherwise excellent story that follows Cyrus Chutneywalla to Toronto to check out a possible bride, Blaise forces images of the city’s evolution into a multi-ethnic enclave on the reader with a clumsy hand, writing at one point: “On the long ride from the airport, they passed through a Chinatown, then a second one, and through other ethnic neighborhoods without English signs.” Geographically, this journey is all but impossible – even if the cab driver were extending the ride to up the fare – given that none of the city’s three Chinatowns is on any known route to Cyrus’s ultimate destination.
The collection ends on a powerful Joycean note with “Man and Boy,” a meditation on one immigrant’s journey: “When we arrived in America we were newly minted, without the movies and songs and sports and television shows that form the very essence of the American character. We could learn to imitate Americans, but we never understood ‘It,’ the essence…. All that we missed was the trivia, the silliness – in other words, the essentials.”