How anxious I was, about rereading this story; I had confused it with “In the Fall”, a heart-breaking story about Scott, a horse (you know the rule about spoilers and animal stories, eh?) who was once all black but became grey around the eyes by the time that story opened.

Now I can see why I muddled this story with it, but not because there’s a horse or any other animal (just the two-legged kind). Because there are echoes of the first two stories in the collection (“The Boat” and “The Vastness of the Dark”) with “The Golden Gift of Grey”.

Jesse here is eighteen, like James in “Vastness” and he, too, is reaching out beyond the familiar borders of his experience, not leaving familiar territory behind by hitchhiking, but exploring corners of the landscape that have been left in darkness until now.

More about the film “Reading Alistair MacLeod” here and here.

And readers have an intimate view of this new narrator, Jesse, and his family life as he recreates a scene for us, chronicling everyday life, and particularly his father in an unawares moment—a scene not entirely unlike the father’s surroundings and way of being in “The Boat” on the fringes of family life.

“And his father who had been propped in front of the television in his undershirt, and in his sock feet and with the waistband of his trousers undone, and with his greying reddish head flopping occasionally from side to side as he dozed and slept more than he dared admit, would have risen and gone to lock the door for the night.”

Jesse’s father and mother “looked upon ‘studyen’ and whatever it might entail with a deep respect not far removed from fear”, while Jesse feels “a strange sensation and kinship with those boys in the F. Scott Fitzgerald stories who practise and practise but never play until a certain moment comes along in their lives and changes them forever”. (This reminds me of the father in “The Boat” and the son in “The Vastness of the Dark”.)

And while Jesse’s parents still journey back home, from Cincinnati to Covington, to the hills in Kentucky, they always return but they “would not wash the red hill mud from that car” and would wait “for the rains to do so as it stood out in the yard”. Their connection to those hills is strong, but strange to their children, and perhaps most especially to James, for whom “studyen” comes naturally, whereas his folks struggle to sign his report cards.

They are playing a high stakes game; his father supports the family by working in an illegal mine, where he and his friend narrowly escaped a recent cave-in. The father’s speedy escape was either due to God’s grace (they’re leaning that way) or to his father’s wisdom and intuition in high-tailing it after the trail of rats heading for the surface even while the rumble was out of earshot.

Jesse, however, has just discovered the pool hall and is fascinated by the patrons there, by the place itself and also by how different it is from other places he has known. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story about a young man’s first glimpse of fresh possibilities; in another sense, it’s a story about how each of us navigates the terrain of difficult choices, how we manage our personal conviction and moral code with our understanding of how the world beyond us is swaying in that balancing act.

The Underneath

Two mechanical elements of “The Golden Gift of Grey” strike me as remarkable: the way the theme of the stories buoys readers throughout until the closing words create a boat beneath us, and the use of language that more fully immerses us in Jesse’s past and present.

We have this passage, for instance, later in the story—one of Jesse’s memories: “He thought then of the awful violence that was within his father; a something that rumbled deep below like some subterranean mountain stream of roaring white water, splashing and pounding dark rocks within deep unseen caves.”

These are not uncommon words (except for ‘subterranean’ perhaps, but the underneath really does matter in this collection and in this story particularly), but the structure of this sentence presents one simple statement about Jesse’s father on one side of the semi-colon and then two highly functioning phrases.

The phrases offer useful information but also issue a rush of syllables (including a lot of ‘r’ sounds in the first phrase and a lot of ‘s’ sounds in the second). If all of the paragraphs (or, even more of the paragraphs) in this story contained this much activity and sound, the story would feel oppressive. But the dominant clarity affords an opportunity to showcase a phrase like this. So we can feel the splashingandthe poundingandthe darkrocksandthe deepunseencaves.

Which is not to say that there must be a concatenation of consonants and a string of phrases to make draw readers more fully into a scene. Here’s another instance in which MacLeod invites us to feel between the words, while he is describing the scene of the pool hall. You can smell it—he describes the layers so vividly in an extended paragraph, that readers can’t help but smell it—and it’s not just a scent or a smell, but an odour.

“Over everything and all of them the odour hung and covered and pressed like the roof of a gigantic invisible tent from which there could be no escape.”

It “hung and covered and pressed”. Any one of those would have hinted at the scene. The trail of them allows each word to pile atop the previous word, until together they form that “invisible tent” and readers have “no escape”.

The details build the scene, but the vocabulary and word order and the phrasal construction immerse readers in that scene. And it’s not entirely comfortable, in either instance, which is just as intended.

Because Jesse is simultaneously thrilled to be in these new surroundings and unsettled by his being there. Not that this is his first visit to the pool hall; it’s just the first one that matters. He’s been in attendance long enough to suss out how it has become a place as familiar to the other men (and a few women, earning a few bucks via a ‘business’ that Jesse did not know existed) as Jesse’s home has been to him. But this night of the story is different.

Talking too much about that difference would spoil the story, but here readers are introduced to the setting:

“There were three quarters on the wood indicating that three challengers still remained. And he looked then at the soft, velvet green of the table itself, that held him, he thought, like a lotus land, and finally to the blackness of the eight-ball and the whiteness of the cue, good and evil he thought, paradoxically flowering here on the greenness of this plain.”

The language in the opening paragraphs spirals around sin and redemption: “forever lost”, “desperate hope”, “condemn”, “righteousness”, “awakening”, “saved”, “doomed”, and “underworld”. So, this description of the pool table with the contrast of eight-ball and cue paralleled to “good” and “evil” is fitting.

How Jesse experiences the events of this evening, and the morning that follows, is viewed within this prism, in a landscape of black and white—but also green. And it’s the “greenness of this plain” which introduces a third colour, something that Jesse struggles to place on the palette.

But the title talks of ‘green’ and not ‘grey’ and that’s because how the story ends is not as you might have guessed. MacLeod even seems to phrase the resolution is such a way that readers can slip past a single noun, one which clarifies a transaction that we might have viewed another way, if we so chose.

Over approximately two years, I am rereading Alistair MacLeod’s short stories, from start to stop, with time between, just as I’ve done with Alice Munro’s and Mavis Gallant’s short stories previously. If you love short stories or if you would like to be a short-story lover, several of these authors’ stories are among my favourites, and would make an excellent introduction to the finest of the form. If you have other favourite story writers, please feel free to contribute those to the conversation too.