With a Heighton story, only the essential is conjured. There’s an efficiency in his writing, along with a sign posted at the door: No shaggy dogs allowed. But to call a writer efficient these days might imply some mechanical coldness—the latest anointed hipster, brimming with pocketfuls of detached irony and urbane wit. Heighton’s efficiency, however, is anything but sparing. His prose is lush, melodic and carefully cadenced. —Richard Farrell
“The virtue of good prose,” writes Steven Heighton in Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing, his meditative collection of aphorisms and memos on art and writing published in 2011, “lies mainly in this dishabituation: it triggers conceptual stammers in the mind, momentarily rerouting hard-set neural circuits, even laying the ground for new ones.” These conceptual stammers, echoes of what the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky called defamiliarizaton, lie at the center of Heighton’s latest collection of stories, The Dead Are More Visible.
From wrathful lesbians to lonely widows, from aging track stars to angsty teen-agers, Heighton pulls off a literary hat trick: he tells spellbinding stories in aching, melodic voices that demand to be read again and again. A female boxer falls in love with her sparring partner; a heroic fireman rushes back into a burning building to rescue a bag of snakes; a recovering drug addict wanders the Sonoran Desert pursued by a mythical, oxycontin peddling hallucination; these are just some of the stammering citizens of Heighton’s fictional universe.
Heighton is a prolific novelist, essayist and poet. With a dozen books already published, it should come as no surprise that his short stories resist easy labels. In his fiction, Heighton interrogates the liminal borderlands of prose and poetry, walking the fine line between lyrical richness and good old-fashioned yarns. Yet never do the intricate textures of his language get in the way of clear-minded, narrative straight-forwardness, a linearity born not of simplistic formulas but out of a long and careful examination of form and structure.
The Dead Are More Visible contains sad stories with happy endings, simple stories with complex themes, and ineffable mysteries of being told from the perspective and language of common folk.
One of the more heartbreaking stories in this collection is “Heart & Arrow,” a twenty-four page, third person story that hinges on the fallibility of memory. On the occasion of his sister’s fortieth birthday party, Merrick thinks back to when he was ten and he would drink alone in his parents’ long-neglected basement bar. He remembers the loneliness of that bar with its “kidney-shaped counter of faux marble with a brown buttoned vinyl fronting, set at the head of a low, half-finished rec room.” His parents drink upstairs and his sister, Laurel, is almost always out with her friends. Desperately isolated, Merrick tries to act grown up by mimicking them. He wants to recreate an imaginary social life with booze and stale mixers. Instead, he creates his own personal hell.
And now he reminds her of that ironic reversal, to encourage her, he thinks, to cheer her up. Or is it to punish her instead? And what is it that’s pushing him to guide her back down that long-demolished stairway into their childhood rec room, the basement bar where he first tried to drown his childhood self and play the hardened, hard-drinking grown-up, while she already seemed set to inherit the only earth that mattered then: a feral frontier of contraband mickeys and smokes, death’s head roach clips, classes skipped with a shrug, creatively varied expletives, first lays in junior high. Stoners, they were called, nobody sure if that honorific referred to the state they were always said to be in or to the flooded limestone quarry where they hung out and smoked up and chugged beer and threw themselves naked off the cliffs.
Condensed into a series of tangible objects imperfectly recalled, this paragraph works like a narrative map. Every image counts. The rec room and dope, the cliffs and quarry, the drinking, sex, and partying—none of these are throwaways. Neither is the reliability of memory itself. Like Chekhov’s gun, each image carries weight. All repeat again and again throughout the pages that follow, forming rich and complex visual and acoustic layers which grow and harmonize as the story progresses. Heighton is thrumming along, patterning images and splintering them off only to bring them back. And the reader is lost in a wonderful miasma of sight and sound, fully captivated and awake.
With a Heighton story, only the essential is conjured. There’s an efficiency in his writing, along with a sign posted at the door: No shaggy dogs allowed. But to call a writer efficient these days might imply some mechanical coldness—the latest anointed hipster, brimming with pocketfuls of detached irony and urbane wit. Heighton’s efficiency, however, is anything but sparing. His prose is lush, melodic and carefully cadenced. Note the alliteration in the above passage, the internal rhymes and the precise pacing of Merrick’s memory of his sister’s social life: “a feral frontier of contraband mickeys and smokes, death’s head roach clips, classes skipped with a shrug, creatively varied expletives, first lays in junior high.” Yet the musical quality of the words balances with abundant, honest and empathetic characters. The stories in The Dead Are More Visible operate with the efficiency of nature, like the recycling of energy and matter in ecosystems, a churning, vital antidote to the sleek, mechanistic packaging of our entertainment culture.
She came from a side of town where most women thickened dramatically in their thirties and before long outweighed their men. The men thinned to sinew, their faces got a wrinkled, redly scoured look as if the skin had been worked with sandpaper, their eyes grew raw and haunted. Ellen had been spared the puffy moon face of her older sisters, only to see her features grow meaty and masculine while her body consolidated, almost doubling itself, like a hard-working farm wife of another era.
In “The Dead Are More Visible,” the lonely Ellen works the night shift, flooding a local park in order to form an ice skating rink. Nearby, a deranged man stares at a twenty-five foot obelisk and channels the dead—once buried there but moved to make way for the park. One night, a menacing group of three men approach. “They had the Grim Reaper look—slumpy, faceless, in layers of dark, baggy hooded sweatshirts.” The men begin to harass, first the deranged man, then Ellen. One of them, Shane, is strikingly handsome, something that Ellen notices in spite of the danger. He casts insults and threats, but she stands her ground. They want to rob her, possibly rape her, and she knows it, but she continues to provoke them. When Shane lunges at her with ice picks, Ellen defends herself with the only weapon available, the hose head in her hand, “a half foot of steel tapered to a flanged hole an inch and a half in diameter.” Ellen impales Shane with the hose head, and rips out his eye. The rest of the story becomes a farcical search for the de-socketed eyeball on the ice rink.
But what happens after such a violent set up is quite remarkable, and I’ll not spoil the ending, except to say that a simple compassion returns to offset the gore. Along the way, Heighton reveals the hardscrabble reality of life in a modern big city, invites the reader to experience a lonely woman’s heroic stance, and, just for good measure, he treats us to the strange, quasi-mystical figure of the deranged man and the obelisk.
It is this deranged man, a seemingly irrelevant character (he has no agency, really, on the page) who serves as the story’s deeper consciousness. “The dead are more visible than we are,” the deranged man tells Ellen, referring not just to the literal dead—the displaced graves once buried below the park—but also to our own existences run down by mortality, progress and the inevitable sweep of time. His voice provides the story its chilling resonance. The reader perceives that this story is about more than just violence and a lonely woman flooding an ice rink. In Workbook, Heighton describes this layering effect as vertical resonance.
Vertical resonance means a downward echoing, the potential for soundings into a textual subconscious, the swimmer’s thrilling sense, when crossing a mountain lake, of unmeasured depths in the dark below the thermocline.
Like the swimmer crossing the lake, we feel only the forward narrative movement, the stroke-and-kick, what-happens-next stimulus of plot. But what differentiates literature from schlock is precisely this deeper, textual subconsciousness. We read along and enjoy the surface story, but something else is happening. The reader slowly becomes aware of a chilling depth, an awareness of the gap between the habituated, day-to-day routines and the deeper, more meaningful qualities of life. The well written story bewitches us this way, deriving power from its ability to wake us up, to shake us out of an automated existence. Or, as Shklovsky once wrote, it makes the stones feel stony again. When it works, and it works quite often within Heighton’s stories, we submit to what John Gardner described as the vivid continuous dream, that phantasmagorical wonder that is reading a well made book. Plot becomes story. Metaphor becomes meaning. We become, in Heighton’s own words, more intensely alive.
Perhaps Heighton’s greatest gift as a writer is a relentless commitment to variety. His readers need never fear boredom. In the collection’s eleven stories, Heighton employs first, second and third person points of view. He has female and male narrators, old and young, innocent and experienced. From sprawling, almost-novella length tales to compact, twelve page stories, Heighton shifts often. Don’t look for thematic unity here. Don’t look for simple structures or stereotypes. Instead, expect to be pulled and pushed in ways that will baffle and befuddle but never fail to satisfy.
The last story in the book, “Swallow,” swells to almost 50 pages, yet it reads—thanks to tight pacing and careful construction—like a story half that length. A Greek-Canadian woman, Roddy, breaks up with her boyfriend, loses her waitressing job and refuses to move home again. To earn money, she signs up for a weeklong human drug trial. The drug she will be taking is an unnamed sedative.
The clinic is a hangar-like structure, cinderblocks and green corrugated siding, on the edge of an industrial park in the wind-scavenged steppes of outer Scarborough. At the park’s entrance the bus drops you along with two women in matching peach parkas over grey sweats. A sunny sub-arctic afternoon. No sidewalks. Snowless lawns hard as Astroturf. Up the middle of the road the matched pals tow dark, wheeled suitcases as big as wolfhounds. You have only a daypack, yet they edge ahead, their trainers flashing, heads down, shoulders high and tight—the slapstick, puffin shuffle of Canadians in winter. You don’t mind the wind’s bee-sting assault on your skin. You haven’t felt so awake in weeks. Neither do you mind the industrial park, finding something here that mirrors your inert inner world, so that for now—for a change—you don’t feel out of place.
Suburban Ontario transforms into a kind of wasteland, yet somehow stays homey too. The puffin shuffle, peach parkas, the wheeled suitcases like wolfhounds, these details accrete. What should be cold and arresting becomes an object of curiosity. The reader, while filled with trepidation, is also called forward.
Bleak and dismal, with drug trials and female subjects locked inside a forbidding building, it’s reasonable to expect Solzhenitsyn, or at least some sort of Orwellian dystopia. But in “Swallow” the mood remains more tantalizing than terrifying. Through a series of drug-induced scenes, we grow closer to Roddy. (The use of a second person narrator is rarely done this well.) We come to feel a community forming between the other women and the providers in this strange place. A sort of humanity arises despite the setting and the fact that these women are being poked and prodded and filled with poisons.
Once again, the conceptual stammers begin to fire. Heighton plays against the expected. Rather than sedating, the experimental sedatives become portals into Roddy’s world. The grim setting and the unusual concept create opportunities for a rich, meaningful experience. It is, in many ways, a sort of cockeyed celebration, a party of misfits who seem somehow enlarged by their very entanglement. This is not what the reader might expect.
But then each of the eleven stories in this collection surprises and delights. Heighton blends structural complexities with a linguistic opulence into a dazzling array of styles. The Dead Are More Visible is a master performance of art and storytelling from a significant writer who has honed his skills to a sharp edge. “[A] yen for transcendence,” Heighton advises himself in Workbook, calling upon the younger writer he once was (and, perhaps, by extension, other writers and readers) “to surmount one’s inborn pettiness and laziness, to be worthy of life’s wonder and better able to frame it in the right words, rightly arranged.” Thankfully, he follows his own advice. The dead are indeed more visible here. The right words are rightly arranged. With neural circuits rewired, habitual concepts stammered, deep lakes crossed and soundings taken, the reader surmounts pettiness and gazes anew at life’s wonder.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has been published at Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.