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The Meagre Tarmac (2011)

by Clark Blaise

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352572,237 (4)12
"The Meagre Tarmac" is master storywriter Clark Blaise's first new collection of short fiction in nearly two decades. A suite of linked stories about the trials and tribulations of several generations of Indo Americans, "The Meagre Tarmac" reminds readers why Blaise is one of the most important storywriters of his generation, and a true North American treasure. This is vintage Blaise: stories straddling borders, clashing cultures and traditions, poverty, affluence, despair, and hope, offering an outsider's view of the changing heart of America that is both ruthless and profoundly moving.… (more)
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Clark Blaise is a Canadian writer living in the United States, married to Bharti Mukerjeee, also a writer, and the Blaise have spent a great deal of time in India. Much of his work is concerned with questions of immigration, identity and exile and just what 'home' means. In THE MEAGRE TARMAC, a novel of linked short stories, Blaise explores these questions again, dealing here with the lives, desires, disappointments and dreams of Indo-Americans.

In lessor hands, a non-Indian's writing about the internal lives of Indians (and much of the book is internal) would be considered unseemly, but Blaise is so good at it, so insightful and compassionate that the question is entirely moot. He writes about people you feel he knows at least at as well as he knows himself.

Many of the characters in these stories are professionally successful, even as their personal lives, and their sense of meaning, disintegrates. One does not have to be Indian to recognize the alienation, longing and loneliness of these people, which Blaise so beautifully and compassionately reveals.

These characters are on journey's inward. They are taking stock of their lives, of their failings, of their illusions and their hopes. Blaise's previous books, which you can find here: http://www.clarkblaise.com/p/books.html have covered similar ground, in different locales, but nobody does it better. His prose is wonderful, his vision clear, his perspective at once deeply moving and yet utterly unsentimental. I have no idea why he doesn't have a broader readership and a big whacking US publisher behind him. He certainly deserves such attention. ( )
  Laurenbdavis | Jan 6, 2012 |
"Despite external signs of satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself happy. I am well-adjusted. We are all extremely well-adjusted. I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background."

Clark Blaise has created a short story collection (a few of which are linked) that explores the world of first-generations immigrants from India who now reside in the West. Most are financially successful, and are often working in the business sector of computers and banking. Extensive education in India and in London makes allows many of these immigrants to surpass the abilities of their American co-workers. Yet as the quote above reveals, high wages and business savvy do not ensure happiness.

Ties to India and family remain firm, even though their new culture has a hard time understanding the connection. A sense of family and standing within the family is underscored in many of these stories, and much of this is due to two factors: the traditions of inheritance and arranged marriage. In the case of inheritance, oldest sons seem blessed by getting most of the family wealth. To be a younger brother means continually fighting for a fair share. In many cases, extended family live together in India; sometimes, one part of each family has just a room of their own, and are subject to the whims of the senior son. In one story, a successful and mild physician at work turns into a plotting madman at home, scheming to get rid of the older brother by lawsuit or darker means.

Arranged marriages are a fascinating part of the story, especially in that even a very successful Indian businessman can feel a need to replicate the tradition and marry one of his "own" despite numerous opportunities to marry anyone he wants. Children too, of first-generation parents have their own battles. Raised in the US, they don't understand the traditions while their parents desperately want to keep their children out of harm's way. They look back to India as a place of innocence and control.

In one story, a successful Pac Bell engineer is worried by his ice-skating progidy daughter (who has her own secrets). The sure answer to him is for them to return to India, but her objections raise entirely new issues for the family to deal with. Many of the stories remind me of the style of Ha Jin's A Good Fall, which dealt with Chinese immigrants in New York. Respectability and behavior are far more important to many immigrants than they are to long-time citizens.

Another story has a hugely successful banker seeking a Parsi bride, even being middle-aged, his mother is still nagging at him to find the proper Parsi wife that will honor the family, a tough search given only about 50,000 Parsis are left. His search leaves him questioning his own beliefs and what exactly makes for a solid relationship.

Partition, castes, progress and family honor are all explored in this fascinating book that I wish had been longer. Blaise ends many stories with a question...leaving the reader to imagine the ending. I didn't mind that, but I'd love to see some of these characters again. Especially intriguing is how many of the immigrants return home regularly, offering financial assistance and with an open mind to permanently return. This was a surprise to me, as it seems that once people get acclimated to a new region, the past represents too many limits. I was also intrigued by a point made in one of the early stories that Indian transplants do not form social societies here in the US, such as other races do. Little Tokyo and Chinatown may be a way for some Asians to recreate a social and culture center here, while Indo-Americans resist unifying in social groups. ( )
1 vote BlackSheepDances | Jun 30, 2011 |
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Most of the eleven stories are not long but they explode entire lives onto the page with such a careful precision and clarity – these stories become embedded in the consciousness. Blaise draws his characters with nearly perfect brush strokes. One constant that runs across all these stories is the prevailing feeling of being part of something, a company, a country, a community, or even a family – and simultaneously, not quite truly being part of anything. These people are dislocated. The world-weary pull between cultures, and the idea of belonging is the genius of this collection, and yet, despite the stranded nature of these characters, Blaise infuses hope. There’s a quiet undercurrent of hope.

Despite my struggle to write this review, it was not because I had problems with these dazzling stories. Quite the opposite. I found this collection of stories drawn around Indian immigrants in North America to be utterly fascinating – and at times breathtaking.
 
Yet Blaise makes something surprisingly fresh out of this material, helped in no small part by his dense and dryly funny prose. The first time through, it is the cultural, geographical, and historical scope of the stories that most impresses. On subsequent readings, the precise observations and wickedly subtle jokes come to the fore.

Many authors, believing that people-sized stories are no longer adequate, struggle to cram the Modern World into their fictions. Blaise does so here with enviable skill, without ever letting us forget that these characters are just as human as they are cultural archetype. Though it does not even reach 200 pages in length, this book is anything but meagre.
 
Enriched by experience, knowledge of variegated literatures and personal contacts, Blaise’s fiction spans the globe, exploring themes of diaspora, rootlessness and cultural identity. Two great historic cultural shifts in particular drive his work, the migration of French Canadians on this continent, and the struggle between tradition and modernity in contemporary India. The latter is the basis of The Meagre Tarmac, a sorrowful chorus of voices, men and women trying to bridge distances between India and the U.S....Underneath these shifting identities, however, abides what one character calls “a kind of stubborn life force.” That life force and the declaration of a long since defunct school teacher — “We’re not identical but we are part of each other” — define the spiritual heart of the book.
 
Ultimately, what holds the collection together is Blaise’s mastery of the short story, his ability to give us a whole personality and the sensuous particularity of lived experience in a handful of pages...This sense of dislocation and disorientation is a global phenomenon, of course, but the impulse, the ability, to connect such an epiphany to the lost magnificence of Concordia and the vanished ghost of the Commonwealth, this is distinctively Clark Blaise and also, perhaps, uniquely Canadian.
 
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For my Grandaughter, Priya Blaise
For fifty years of guidance , all of my Indian friends,
and of course my wife, Bharati.
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A monstrously tall girl from Stanford with bright yellow hair comes to the door and asks if I am willing to answer questions for sociology class.
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"The Meagre Tarmac" is master storywriter Clark Blaise's first new collection of short fiction in nearly two decades. A suite of linked stories about the trials and tribulations of several generations of Indo Americans, "The Meagre Tarmac" reminds readers why Blaise is one of the most important storywriters of his generation, and a true North American treasure. This is vintage Blaise: stories straddling borders, clashing cultures and traditions, poverty, affluence, despair, and hope, offering an outsider's view of the changing heart of America that is both ruthless and profoundly moving.

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An Indo-American Canterbury Tales, The Meagre Tarmac explores the places where tradition, innovation, culture, and power meet with explosive force. It begins with Dr. Vivek Waldekar, who refused to attend his father's funeral because he was "trying to please an American girl who thought starting a fire in his father's body too gross a sacrilege to contemplate." It ends with Pranab Dasgupta, the Rockefeller of India, who can only describe himself as "'a very lonely, very rich, very guilty immigrant.'" And in between is a cluster of remarkable characters, incensed by the conflict between personal desire and responsibility, who exhaust themselves in pursuit of the miraculous. Fearless and ferociously intelligent, these stories are vintage Blaise, whose outsider's view of the changing heart of America has always been ruthless and moving and tender.
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