The laundry hangs on the clothesline in the background, while Alistair MacLeod speaks to his wife Anita about what their life was like when the kids were young.

It’s there, in the film “Reading Alistair MacLeod”, that I see Anita patiently waiting, while he pulls out a small stack of photographs from his wallet—the kind of group photographs that might have been taken in a department store studio.

Alistair and Anita are sitting on the stoop, in front of their house in Cape Breton (Nova Scotia, Canada), and I hear her laugh at his jokes—hear them laugh together. This is the kind of marriage I have in mind while reading “The Vastness of the Dark”.

Because even though it’s the story of an eighteen-year-old boy who has decided to leave home—leave his parents and his many, younger siblings—it’s also about the realization that James is only one person, in a long line, who has made this decision.

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He doesn’t have to travel far, to realize how this decision makes him the same—and different—from the other people he knows, to gain a more nuanced understanding of how we belong, to places and to people.

“I do not really know how to say good-bye as I have never before said it to anyone and, because I am uncertain, I wish to say it now to as few as possible.”

His goodbye feels like it’s all about the future, at first. But soon it’s more about the past. Through the course of ordinary events, seemingly contrasting ideas have a closer relationship than James would have guessed.

The kind of small, tightly-knit community he’s from—it’s filled with restrictions and possibilities. The kind of enduring battle between his grandfather and grandmother about coal mining demonstrates the industry as both a devastating and sustaining force for their family.

The man who picks him up on the side of the road—coarse and lewd—with his flashy car and Ontario license plates, stands in contrast with the boy’s own kin but also in contrast with the pair of miners travelling to look for work (and with the three Black men who stopped for him first).

James thinks and wonders, remembers and ponders: the power of this story rests inside of him. But the outer layers of the story reinforce the small and grand ideas that reside in this single decision, this single day, this single journey. In a passage like this one, readers see the connections and diversions: just a couple of sentences contain it all.

“All afternoon the road curves and winds ahead of us like a bucking, shimmering snake with a dirty white streak running down its back. We seem to ride its dips and bends like captive passengers on a roller coaster, leaning our bodies into the curves, and bracing our feet against the tension of the floorboards.”

There is wonder (the ‘bucking’, the ‘shimmering’, the ‘coaster’) and wildness (‘bucking’, ‘dirty’). And James responds to it all (‘leaning’, ‘bracing’). All of that makes a good story, but where this becomes a great story is beneath that shimmering snake, that sinuous line etched into the ground.

The Underneath

Not much of this story takes place underground, but the miners and the mining companies are ever-present. James opens the story sharply and directly, like a pick striking a single entry point, clearly stating the time and date in the past and pulling readers into that moment.

First, though, it’s simply a story about family. Soon, the fact that theirs is a mining family moves to the forefront of the story. The descriptions are specific and through, as James outlines the gear and the clothing worn underground by the men in his family (in much the same way as the fishers in “The Boat” were fully in and of that work).

Also hovering in the background of the story (mostly) is the broader sense of an industry, the companies that cut corners and cut the cheques for the men who worked in the mines. It’s in this context that another set of dichotomies—stories of rescues and losses —appears. These men work in the mines; they are also the ones who work to free other miners, when ceilings collapse.

These disasters are both small- and large-scale; they happen in the orbit of James’ family, they happen in mines everywhere. One of my favourite lines rests in the few coins a child had saved for small pleasures, redirected to the collections for family members left behind, following a cave-in: “Other people’s buried fathers are very strange and far away but licorice and movie matinees are very close and real.”

This kind of parallel structure (‘strange and far away’ and ‘licorice and movie matinees’ and ‘very close and real’) was evident in “The Boat” as well. In that context, it mimics the natural rhythm of the tides, which suits that story about a fisher family. Here, the same rhythm holds a different significance, but still alludes to powers greater than any single person.

In the broader sense, however, the idea of mining also works metaphorically. I think about Alistair MacLeod’s way of writing, deliberate and detailed, when I read this passage: “It was a very narrow little seam that we attacked, first with our drilling steels and bits, and then with our dynamite, and finally with our picks and shovels.” He employs a variety of tools to expose meaning and emotion in his stories.

The pick lands in the earth at a specific point when the story begins, but what follows, the work that unfolds, it all changes the way that readers define surface and beneath, present and past, thought and memory.

Similarly, this is a story about a specific father and son in Cape Breton, but it also seems to be about parents and children universally. Both the father in “The Boat” and the father in this story, for instance, have a reason to keep one foot on the ground, even while sleeping, like this: “His mouth is slightly open and there are little bubbles of saliva forming and breaking at its corners, and his left arm and perhaps even his left leg are hanging over the bed’s edge and resting upon the floor.” (Check out those spit bubbles: in and out, like tiny waves.)

In some ways, the fathers’ reasons are contrasting, in other ways, comparable. Underneath it all, the course of things takes the shape of a vein, whether a river of water or a seam of coal. Maybe one person, like James, is only “flotsam on yet another uninteresting river”. Maybe the take-away is something grander: “Their lives flowing into mine and mine from out of theirs.”

Maybe this is a story of a marriage. Maybe it’s a story of his marriage. What we know from the film, is that Alistair MacLeod’s writing day was something that happened before noon, with the rest of the day dedicated to family life. We don’t know if he wrote this story thinking of himself as the father, or as the son. But, after reading, we know that there is little difference, and an astonishing difference, between the two experiences of the world.

For the better part of two years, I am rereading Alistair MacLeod’s short stories, from start to stop, 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.