Edgar Allan Poe first published “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843, and despite the short story being 180 years old, it still grips our attention. We know from the opening line that the unnamed narrator has done something awful, and we know that he is desperate to somehow justify it: “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
The narrator proceeds to describe his neighbour, who possesses “the eye of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” The mere sight of that eye makes the narrator’s blood run cold, “so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” We learn this in the second paragraph, yet our chronicler insists we have it all wrong. “You fancy me mad,” he says to us. “Madmen know nothing.”
From there, the narrator describes the depths of his knowledge: how he planned a murder, how he methodically spied on the old man in darkness, and how, “upon the eighth night,” he finally carried through. “If still you think me mad,” he says to us again, “you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.”
Even as we know, from the very first line, that the narrator is a lunatic, even as the foreboding of his ultimate demise permeates every sentence, even as we have encountered Poe’s classic short story countless times in school and university, we keep reading. And though we know what’s coming, almost to the point that we can recite it from memory, Poe still delivers with his final paragraph: “I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! here, here! — It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
If there is any justice in this literary world, Steven Heighton’s “Professions of Love,” the fifth of the eleven stories in Instructions for the Drowning, will soon find itself sitting side by side with “The Tell-Tale Heart” on syllabuses everywhere. Like Heighton’s final collection as a whole, it is wonderful.
“Some will attest, many, in fact, that I am one of the finest in the field,” the narrator of “Professions of Love” tells us at the start. “I am surgeon of choice for many of this city’s, this country’s, most prominent and preferred names.” The narrator’s own name, we eventually learn, is Rudi, which is surely short for Rudolph. It’s a name that means “famous wolf,” but we don’t need etymology to quickly surmise that we are dealing with a wolf in surgical clothing. “I am said, actually, let me be frank, to be the finest in the field.”
Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is clearly crazy; Heighton’s narrator in “Professions of Love” is clearly egomaniacal. Both are psychologically abnormal; they even share an overly baroque diction, with clause interrupting clause interrupting clause, as if they can’t possibly convey all that they have to say fast enough.
Rudi’s obsession grows and grows, but it’s not with a neighbour’s “vulture eye.” Rather, the fifty-six-year-old surgeon fixates on his slightly older wife’s aging face. “I love her inextricably,” he wants us to know. “But a disjunction has entered, had entered, my regard. I yearned to correct it.” The antithesis of vain, Rudi’s wife has no interest in the restorative dexterity that has made her husband rich and famous. “I knew that, should nothing change, I would leave my Fidelia.” The irony of the wife’s name — which means loyalty — is not lost on us as Rudi grows more and more disloyal. “I knew that I was causing my Fidelia pain,” he admits of his transgressions, still all in his mind. And then, after a disheartening vacation to Belize with Rudi, she suffers a minor stroke, which leaves a permanent “downsag” in her right eye.
Recalling the old man’s “hideous” eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Fidelia’s right eye gives Rudi the justification he needs to commit the sins we know are coming. “An ordinary doctor can, with luck, by forestalling death, slow time. I reverse it! ” We spend the entirety of “Professions of Love” anticipating the consequences of such a reversal for both husband and wife — we understand what’s going to happen — but the story’s conclusion is no less transfixing.
We may know where “Professions of Love” is heading from the outset, but we are less sure of how conflict will resolve itself in “Who Now Lies Sleeping.” Told from the first-person perspective of three characters — a father, a son, and a dead mother’s best friend — the story is set in a small town, somewhere north of Uxbridge, Ontario, and sometime around 2009. Duncan, a widower and retired lawyer, has started coaching hockey again, some wholesome community service that will position him well for an upcoming mayoral run. His son Jem, a thirtysomething gay man with a café in Toronto, has returned home on Christmas Eve with hopes that he might bury the ashes of his husband, who has died of AIDS, in the family plot. Of course, that’s exactly the kind of thing that could get people talking and sabotage Duncan’s political ambitions. Terri, who more or less grew up with Jem and who has since fallen in love with Duncan, must try to help them both navigate a generational impasse.
“Who Now Lies Sleeping” perfectly captures how difficult it can be for urban outsiders to understand small towns and how reluctant small towns can often be to accept city folk. “I’ve been up here since I was eight,” Terri explains, “and I’m still just a Toronto girl who moved north.” But the story truly shines in its depiction of growing up as a queer athlete in such a place in the 1990s — when sport could be both beard and purgatory. “He didn’t score that goal for me, or even for his mother, or for his coach or his teammates, but to prove how much he hates my guts,” Duncan remembers. “My son is gay and for a year or two in the solitude of 3 a.m. I’ve known it, the other players are right, the child I love more than my own breath is a fag, a fag, a fag.”
The story ends as Jem lies in his childhood bed. “He cheated on me,” he thinks of his dead husband, “lied, sulked, refused to apologize, made me crazy, made me laugh, at last apologized, left me debts and a double mortgage, left me.” He falls asleep before we know whether such love can overcome homophobia, which endures despite social progress.
Like Jem, a thirteen-year-old boy in “Desire Lines” seems to constantly disappoint his dad, an up-by-the-bootstraps Greek immigrant. Niko, who is near obsessed with a video game called GeoLoc8r, overhears his father “worrying that he did not yet shave, that inactivity and isolation were preventing normal maturation.” As the pandemic continues, and as Niko spends his time almost entirely online, his father conceives of the Sunday Winter Walk, which “was neither invitational nor optional.” On their fifth outing, they venture further than before and decide to take a shortcut across a wide frozen river. As Niko’s father blazes a path and lectures his effete son on the prowess of Pheidippides, “the vapourless winter air clarified, seemingly magnified, the far shore into proximity.” It takes a crack in the ice — the inevitability of which we sense, once again, is coming from the start — to similarly clarify the true nature their relationship.
From the macabre confessions of an unhinged plastic surgeon to the authentic exchanges between uncompromising fathers and their sons, the stories gathered in Instructions for the Drowning range in scope, style, and geography. Just five pages long, “You’re Going to Live,” in which a lone prison guard saves a disgraced colonel from a suicide attempt, is quite unlike the titular “Instructions for the Drowning,” a much longer, much funnier tale set in cottage country. Yet both speak to the human will to survive: “He could surrender, he could just inhale, it would be less painful, painless, he has heard, but he rips himself free as if from a jammed seat belt in a sinking car and shoots upward.”
At times, actual survival is only slightly more important to Heighton’s characters than saving face, especially in a world filtered through social media. In “Repeat to Failure,” a recently divorced supply chain manager named Rasmus has started dating an older psychoanalyst, who is “sharper, more vital, in fact incandescent with health.” To compensate for his “dull, doughy, blunted and tarnished” feelings, Rasmus starts hitting the gym over lunch. One September afternoon, when he attempts another bench press too many, “his right arm quaked and buckled and the iron shaft lay cold and heavy across his chest.” Instantly, Rasmus is in his own worst nightmare: a real-life blooper reel that actual athletes or, worse, influencers will surely post and repost with smug satisfaction. “Pressure kept building behind his eyes, his cheeks and ears burned, it was partly shame, he was going to die and he felt less afraid than embarrassed.”
Vainglory features differently in “The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead,” the collection’s closing story and the only one set (primarily) in the distant past. In it, Heighton imagines the fate of Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, “the McGill University dropout whose assault on Houdini led to the magician’s death.” It is pride that propels Houdini to accept Whitehead’s blows to the abdomen and pride that takes him back on stage several days later, against his doctors’ orders. It is pride that animates Whitehead as he shares and embellishes his dissembling jeremiad on revival stages throughout the American South. And it is pride that foils Eugene Keller, an investigative reporter for the Gazette, in his overly theatrical attempt to expose Whitehead.
In the final two paragraphs, Heighton seems to inject himself into the narrative, or at least our interpretation of it, describing how he once encountered the “humpbacked ruin of a giant” in Nepal and how this old man with “scarecrow arms” might have been the Whitehead he’s been describing this whole time. Perhaps God is to be found in such men after all?
If “Professions of Love” deserves to be read alongside Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for decades to come, “As If in Prayer,” an affecting portrait of an Egyptian man burying drowned refugees in the hills of a Greek island, might best be read alongside Heighton’s own Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos. I commissioned a review of that work of non-fiction ahead of its publication in 2020. As sometimes happens, the reviewer I tapped promised me a draft and promised again, only to never file. I realized right away that Instructions for the Drowning is simply too good to risk history repeating itself.