Leaps of Faith
Stories by Harold Macy
At the bar of the Princeton Hotel, in northern British Columbia, sits a middle-aged woman who has just abandoned her oafish, self-centred husband and skipped town. Now she drinks solo. Dave, “a short fireplug of a man,” approaches and strikes up a conversation, prompting her to ask him his line of work. Dave, unaware of the woman’s recent breakup, informs her that he makes his living as a professional home wrecker. He even has a business card: “David J. McNeil, Licensed Blaster. ‘I don’t stand behind my work, I stand behind a tree.’ ”
This is the opening scene of “Gelignite,” one of the highlights of Harold Macy’s All the Bears Sing, a collection anchored in the forests and small towns of British Columbia. Dave and the unnamed woman hit the Interior’s roads, demolishing homes and — aside from one moment of danger near the end — remaining safely behind trees as they do so. Like most stories in All the Bears Sing, “Gelignite” is short and brisk, its plot roaring along like a truck down the Coquihalla Highway. The characters emerge through evocative details that stud the fast-flowing course of events. Indeed, the speed seems part of the point: there’s a messiness to the peripatetic life these two fashion for themselves, as well as an exhilarating sense of liberation that comes from detonating the past and leaving it behind.
Venturing into the wild — from the known to the unknown, from complacency to excitement — is a common activity in Macy’s stories, which, despite their vivid descriptions of pristine landscapes and waterways, often gravitate to places amid transformation. To an extent, this interest springs from Macy’s own experience. A long-time resident of northern Vancouver Island, he knows the forestry sector intimately and from a variety of vantages, having worked as a silviculturist, a wildfire fighter, a heli-logger, and an instructor in small-scale forestry and agroforestry at the Oyster River Research Farm.
A deep familiarity with the manifold ways in which humans both exploit and commune with the natural world — and with the eclectic communities that arise in backwoods locales — pervades the collection. “By the Book,” for instance, depicts the dangerous work of smoke jumpers, those firefighters who parachute into remote, hard-to-reach conflagrations. Macy pairs one smoke jumper’s pure exhilaration and terror while descending into a blazing forest in the Kootenays with his girlfriend’s mounting impatience with the tolls his job imposes on their relationship: the long stints away from home, the cycle of summertime toil followed by wintertime unemployment that leaves him stir-crazy. For the smoke jumper, though, his work is not simply a job. It’s a vocation, even an adrenalin-packed addiction.
“By the Book” certainly succeeds in conveying the vocation’s seductions. Macy’s prose soars in capturing the man’s plunge: “Jump — thousand, wait — thousand, set — thousand and on cue the umbilical static line pulls the pack pins, the spring-loaded pilot chute fires out and I feel the drag pull me vertical in my snug harness. Look — thousand. . . . After all the noise of the Twin Otter, after the roar of the wind and the metallic taste of fear as I started falling through the sky — now comes the silence.” The story weaves a motif from the act of falling, yoking the rush of the smoke jumper’s leap with the aimlessness of his home life, where his girlfriend gently reminds him that his physically punishing work is exclusively a young person’s game from which he’ll have to move on eventually. What future awaits them? Her disorientation and uncertainty feel like an unending fall.
Contemporary readers are alert as never before to markers of the Anthropocene in the tales we read. And while those markers abound in Macy’s book, the planetary repercussions of the extractive industries that shape the work and lives of many of his characters hover mainly at the fringes. Instead, the collection’s centre stage features dramas of conflict, discovery, and self-transformation. “Into the Silverthrone Caldera” describes two heli-loggers confronting the limits of human and technological mastery over nature as their Sikorsky spins out of control toward the brittle crust of a dormant volcano, an expanse of “broken talus and aprons of scree weathered by wind and frost heave.” In “Lipstick,” a forest service officer confronts an aggressive illegal logger on a remote road without any backup. Suffused with danger, the encounter forces him to weigh his own safety against the duty of upholding the law.
Despite its lyrical descriptions of woodlands, animals, and waterways, All the Bears Sing is equally fascinated with social cues — and how humans sort themselves into groups through codes of manners, tastes, and comportment. Markers of class abound. Some characters scarf “No Name brand KD” on the regular; others, usually rich city folk out of their element, sport pricey outdoor gear disdained by the locals. The drama usually arises not simply from friction between members of different groups, whether rich and poor or local and tourist. Rather, it stems from the movements across communal boundaries: how outsiders to an area become insiders, indeed how the line between insider and outsider subtly modulates over time.
Macy nods to this penchant for human observation in “Ditch Clothes,” which features an urban sociologist who goes undercover as a homeless person to gauge the attitudes of the monied toward the poor. But it is “Overburdened,” a particular standout, that prods most insistently at the often malleable, shifting demarcations between those who belong and those who don’t. The story features a retired big-city professor and his wife who decamp to a small island that’s proud of its reputation as a quirky counterculture outpost. Some welcome the couple only warily. Yet as a mining operation comes to threaten the place’s offbeat seclusion, the borders between self-styled insiders — disdainful, sometimes performatively so, of mainstream society and mass capitalism — and outsiders fray. Some of the locals awaken to a startling truth: they may be complicit in ecologically destructive, regrettably mainstream ways of life they believed they had left behind.
William Faulkner famously claimed he could never exhaust the imaginative possibilities of his own little postage stamp of native soil. To our Anthropocene-tinged eyes, Harold Macy’s soil may prove exhaustible in certain senses — think depleted forests — but he amply demonstrates its richness as a resource for fiction.