Books: “Instructions for the Drowning: Stories” by Steven Heighton
The world lost a sensitive soul when author Steven Heighton died last year from cancer at the age of 60. A Canadian-born poet, novelist, and songwriter, he authored 17 books, garnered every literary award in his native country, and was a frequent contributor to Granta, Times Literary Supplement, and the NYT Book Review. Steven’s last collection of short stories— “Instructions for the Drowning”—may have unconsciously foreshadowed his own end: never has such elegant language been used to make the morbid seem so fascinating.
In the title story, a man remembers the best way to save a drowning person is to knock them unconscious, or they will fight you and drag you down under with them. There are also tales of sons who don’t measure up to their fathers’ expectations. Of a burned-out army doctor who tried but fails to kill himself. And perhaps most interesting of all, a story called “The 5 Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead” —about the search for the murderer of escape artist Harry Houdini, who escaped the scene of the crime and was never captured.
Such macabre subjects hardly lend themselves to a hearty recommendation, least of all from happy-go-lucky me. But Shirley Jackson was also a master of this genre and her short stories are now universally lionized. For “Twilight Zone”-like tales told with grace and sensitivity, you’d be hard pressed to find better than this slight, wonderful anthology from the late Steven Heighton. O Canada!
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