Paul Carlucci’s Layered Stories of Life in a Northern Town
The High-Rise in Fort Fierce
Goose Lane Editions
Paul Carlucci’s linked short story collection, The High-Rise at Fort Fierce, revolves around a dilapidated apartment building in the titular, fictional small town in the Northwest Territories. The opening story follows three generations of owner/caretakers of the building as they allow the high-rise to fall into further and further disrepair. They especially neglect the floors where they have crowded low-income tenants. Many of the collection’s protagonists are tenants who are being slowly poisoned by the high-rise’s mould-infested walls; their shared symptoms are one of the ways Carlucci creates cohesion across the overlapping narratives.
The mould and the illness it causes are symbolic of the theme of exploitation that runs throughout the collection. In the opening story, we learn the owners of the building know dangerous fungus is growing inside the walls and hope to keep it secret so they won’t be forced to do anything about it. Some tenants suspect the building is making them sick but lack the resources to relocate.
In “There Goes the Dogstar,” the narrator wonders if there might be something toxic behind a plaster bubble on the wall of his apartment but decides he won’t ask the landlord about it. He loves taking his dog up to the roof to stargaze and worries the landlord will take away his key to the roof as a punishment for raising the issue. The mould is a physical manifestation of how place and exploitation are connected in these stories. The High-Rise at Fort Fierce attempts to show how abuse is perpetrated and experienced in an isolated, Northern community.
Carlucci references the historic and ongoing systemic oppression of Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian government as a force that shapes life in Fort Fierce. In the first story, Norman Franklin, who inherited the high-rise from his father, reflects on an inukshuk at the entrance to Fort Fierce. Residents of the town are angry about the inukshuk because it is an Inuit symbol that does not represent the town’s Dene community. Norman thinks he might have an Indigenous relative and this inspires him to consider asking some of his Indigenous tenants how they feel about the inukshuk. He quickly decides against speaking with the tenants, reciting racist stereotypes about Indigenous people to himself.
In “Look at you, Percy,” a Dene woman named Linda mentions the inukshuk as a symbol of how the colonial government ignores distinctions between different Indigenous groups, making it easier for the government to steal land and resources from Indigenous Peoples while refusing to implement basic infrastructure in communities like Fort Fierce. In both these stories the Inukshuk becomes a vehicle to reveal the complex ways systemic racism impacts life in the town.
Early in the book Carlucci raises the idea of individual “newcomers” and “outsiders” in the Northwest Territories participating in systems of power that make it possible for them to take advantage of permanent residents of Fort Fierce. The narrator of “Wood Toad,” a woman named Marley, describes a transient community of people who come to the town in the summer because they have, “… ruined their lives in the south and been lured north by the promise of escape.” These visitors often scoop up public-sector jobs, for which Marley says the locals are deemed too inexperienced or unskilled.
As a child, Marley has a strange and manipulative secret friendship with an adult surveyor from the south. Even though it is a brief relationship it has a huge impact on Marley. As an adult she is drawn to “newcomers” and starts advertising welcome baskets designed to make visitors feel at home in Fort Fierce. This is one of the quieter and more poignant stories in the collection; it captures the dynamic between people who are able to leave a small place and those who cannot.
While the mould is a subtle metaphor for the bodily harm people in positions of power inflict on people with less agency, almost every story in the collection has descriptions of more explicit violence, including battery, murder and strongly implied sexual abuse. Carlucci’s characters are complex and his strength is that he captures how people can be capable of both love and unforgivable brutality. But having several stories in a row hinge on lurid descriptions of assault or murder becomes repetitive. The graphic violence in the book, especially the descriptions of violence against Indigenous women, feels gratuitous and takes away from the more nuanced observations about abuse and exploitation in the collection.