Don Gutteridge

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

Like A North American Education, Clark Blaise's second collection of stories [Tribal Justice] invites a thematic reading. It is about tribes and tribalism—Southerners, Jews, Negroes, Crackers, Quebecers, and assorted other characters caught somewhere between the recognized social groups—dominate these fine stories. But they are concerned as well with the general failure of justice in modern life. Not political justice, though that is dealt with more directly here than in the previous book, so much as the failure of simple human compassion in the most distressing circumstances, the mindless hatred generated by the 'necessary' defensiveness of tribes, beleaguered groups, desperate families, and their pathetic failure to love even themselves.

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Within this environment—the contemporary worlds of Florida, Alabama, Quebec, and their recent, still vivid past (Blaise evokes the thirties and forties with great assurance)—the author sets his first-person narrators the task of learning and surviving. The best stories, ironically, are those which do not explicitly deal with the tribal justice motif: "Broward Dowdy", "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster", "Relief" and "I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard". Here are splendid rites of passage, moments of painful insight, and genuine psychological initiation And there is real feeling, too, an emotional engagement with not only the narrator's dilemma but the other characters and the background landscapes. (p. 20)

These stories appear in Part One. Part Two is more explicitly thematic, more concerned with the American social scene, though never exclusively. There are rites of passage here, too,—the long and absorbing central story, "The March", for example—but they lack the sharp focus of those in Part One, or perhaps there are just too many ironies to be grasped at once. "The Seizure" is one of those horror stories Blaise is able to produce at will, about a white college boy who has to repossess the furniture of a poor white family, in the presence of a Negro helper and a bad-mouth deputy sherriff. The ironies are bizarre, the accumulated detail and flawless dialogue are suitably 'horrific'—but the ending is curiously diffuse, and none of the characters completely worthy of our trust. "The March", almost novella-length, combines the search for roots in America and Quebec with the American racial setting of the early 1960's, but while individual sections are interesting, the Selma episode bonechilling in its cool detailing, and the conclusion arresting for a long moment, I found the whole effect lacked the staying power of a simpler story like "Broward Dowdy".

But Blaise, even in low gear, is very, very good. The last three stories, which seem slight by comparison, are technically interesting, and highlight, by contrast, the fine control of tone, shape, nuance, and deep humanity of the best stories.

One hopes that Blaise will not be conveniently categorized as a unique hybrid writer who must, at last, reveal the dark secrets of our North Americaness. If he does so in any way, it is by making the reader, American, Canadian or otherwise, live through these carefully crafted fictions with their detailed landscapes, growing range of characters and events, and themes which are at once personal and general. I certainly found more questions here than answers. And that is as it should be. (p. 21)

Don Gutteridge, "Learning and Surviving," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LIV, No. 646, November-December, 1974, pp. 20-1.

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