The Meagre Tarmac

By Clark Blaise

Henry James was one of the great explorers of the international theme in literature, and often returned in his fiction to what he described as the “complex fate” of Americans living in Europe. In the fiction of Clark Blaise there is a similar concern with questions of immigration and exile, place and identity, only the linked stories in The Meagre Tarmac all deal with the “curious fate” (as one character considers it) of Indo-Americans.

That label “Indo-American” covers a great deal of ground, including as it does two of the three most populous countries on Earth. The characters here represent a wide variety of regional and religious backgrounds: hailing from Mumbai, Bangalore, Calcutta and Goa, and scattering to new homes in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Montreal and London. What they share is an intelligence and adaptability that leads to professional success even as their personal lives slowly unthread.

Being an immigrant leads to predictable confusion when it comes to self-definition. A Luso-Indian literary editor living in Manhattan feels her life to be like the “endless middle of an unticketed journey.” A Bengali native touring Italy is pulled up short by the “ambiguous question” “Where are you from?” He’s not sure. A financial industry genius sees himself as not quite Indian, and finally “not quite anything.”

But the alternative to these states of doubt is too confining. The notion of a curious fate suggests something predetermined, a matrix of destiny. And so the curious fates of Blaise’s Indo-Americans are hedged about by ethnic enclaves, extended families, arranged marriages and the mystic cords of memories that tie them to places now thousands of kilometers away and that only existed many years ago. As one New Economy tycoon puts it, America provides the immigrant with everything he wants, but not what he needs. Still, he can’t go home again.

Readers familiar with Blaises’s work will find much of this introspective accounting familiar ground. But the handling is as sure as ever, the mark of a master craftsman, and the detail is contemporary and well observed throughout. Nobody dramatizes life as a continual process of stock-taking like Blaise, or has imagined that process in so many different contexts. His stories are inward journeys, endless and unticketed.

Review first published June 25, 2011.

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