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Fiction Coming Of Age

The Shadow Boxer

by (author) Steven Heighton

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
May 2001
Coming of Age, Literary, 21st Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2001
    List Price

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Already highly-acclaimed as a poet and short-story writer, The Shadow Boxer announces Steven Heighton's arrival as a major new novelist on the Canadian literary scene. Intricately patterned and multi-layered, this is the story of Sevigne Torrins, poet and boxer, who sets off into the world to make it, and whose romantic and professional misadventures take him as far as Egypt before he finds his way back to the Great Lakes. But the classic writerly dream that Sevigne pursues turns out in practice to have a different and darker reality than any he had foreseen. Haunting and splendidly evocative, this is a passionate love story about the power of dreams and regret.

About the author

Contributor Notes

STEVEN HEIGHTON was the author of the novel Afterlands, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice along with a best book of the year selection in ten publications in Canada, the US, and the UK; and has been optioned for film. He is also the author of The Shadow Boxer, a Canadian bestseller and a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. His work has been translated into ten languages, and his poems and stories have appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, The Walrus, Europe, Agni, Poetry London, Brick, Best English Stories, and many others. Heighton has won several awards and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Trillium Award, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award. He died in 2022.

Excerpt: The Shadow Boxer (by (author) Steven Heighton)

Rye Island seems to lie at the heart of some meteorological singularity; the summer goes on freakishly hot, day after day the mercury reading five degrees higher than reported for the Soo. Is it a sign of global warming, that fever afflicting the planet as it sickens? Poisoned. But all that seems improbable here. Here time seems to be moving backwards, if it ever has moved; in late afternoon towering banks of cumulus mass over Superior and thunder rolls out of the west like rumblings of the Lost Herds in a late stampede. One day as he sits working, peripheral vision or some inscrutable instinct draws his attention outward. What looks like his father's vessel is passing a few miles south on a bearing for the Soo. He hurries onto the catwalk. Through binoculars the magical name Algonordic appears on a hull mottled with smuts of rust and blistering paint; despite the air's warmth the deck rail and coaming aisles are deserted and the glare of sunlight off the wheelhouse panes hides the occupants. He follows his father's crewless ship until it's lost to sight, a ghost ship like those medieval ones whose sailors succumbed to the Black Death and then drifted on unmanned for years, sometimes finding unlucky ports.

One night he wakes to a sound like sleet or freezing rain tapping at the windows. He opens his eyes and sits up. The grey floor like the parchment wall of a vespiary swirls with tiny shadows cast by moonlight while outside the stars seem to reel and spill and revolve as if the earth were plummeting through space. He leaps up and goes for the access door, left open for air. The water-blisters are swarming out of the northwest; the door faces southward but a few have gotten in. Stunned or dying, they rest on the bright floor of the light chamber, curled green tails twitching. He pulls the door shut and stands by his desk as they stream towards him thick as a blizzard or some biblical curse. You'd think they were flying straight out of the moon. In their millions they clip the windows and bounce off and hit again or veer around the tower or plunge out of sight. He sags into his chair and watches, mouth slack. He loses all sense of time. Then the blizzard thins out, abruptly ceases; the night world reappears; the catwalk is squirming with tiny shapes and the woods and calm lake are left seethingly active, larval in the moonlight. Dubious of his father's reports of fantastic evanescence, he tells himself he will explore in the morning, the insects will still be there. He wakes to a cool front scudding in from the west and finds the catwalk swept clean and the forest and the choppy waters purged, nothing left but a few papery husks on the light-chamber floor and on the shores a fading odour like rotten seaweed.


By August the turquoise waters of the cove are almost tepid. Sevigne has taken to crossing the cove--racing his shadow as it skims over the logs and cobbles twenty feet down--then pushing out through the narrows a dozen strokes into the usually unswimmable lake. One hot afternoon impulse and risk tempt him onward. He has an urge to cross the floating border like his father, and stand on US soil amid the fireweed and few skeletal trees of Nile. His body these days feels so strong and he so fully within it--an owner and not a tenant--he half believes he could swim to the Soo, and at first the cold of the open lake is exciting, and the extremes: when he breathes, the heat of the sun on his face and the rainbow shatter of light in his wet lashes, when he looks down, icy blackness pierced by auroral streamers receding into the depths. He is swimming through space above the northern lights--over Chagall's Vitebsk! Stars at elbow and foot. He's soaring. How could he have hoped for such elevation in the city? The disembodied city! When all joy, he feels now, even mental joy, is founded in the body.

In the channel between Rye and Nile, starting to feel deeply chilled, he enters a vein of water so cold that the first breath he draws there is broken and brings no air. It's water churned up from depths below the thermocline or blown in from mid-lake by the winds. He cranes his head up, looks around. Nile is farther out than he thought. He should turn back, but it isn't like him--as if somebody were waiting ahead on the shore, on every goddamned shore, stopwatch in hand, Wimp, come on, and he pushes on, striving to generate warmth, but the cold palsies his limbs and truncates his stroke and the winds funnelled through the strait churn up waves against him.

Soon he would gladly turn back but now Nile is closer than Rye and he'll take the closest shore. An eerie abatis of blackened timber rises from the depths to the islet's banks. He puts on a burst of speed and soon drags himself onto a slick, liver-like slab of rock marbled with streaks like dirty fat and lies there prone and gasping. He would stay there embracing the warm stone, letting the sun bake winter out of him, but the winds are chilling him further and his teeth won't stop chattering. Arms crossed over his chest he runs along the shore to the lee side. It's no good, even out of the wind his body is cooling. His throat is parched and a bitter paste of fear coats his tongue. Momentarily he has the wild notion of signalling a distant freighter for help, or of swimming out to the light-buoy pulsing red and to cling there like a limpet as if it could warm him, as if you could not possibly die in the embrace of such an artefact of human order. Like that hitch-hiker (Trubb again) on the Trans-Canada last winter. OPP found her clinging to a road sign--Sault Ste Marie 100 klicks--had to chip her off inch by inch.

He grits his teeth and with a running start dives in. A dozen strokes out, the full shock of it hits him. It's too cold to draw proper breath. He makes for the place on the south shore where the creek plunges a few feet over a ledge
and an exposed pine thrusts from a granite cleft. The west wind has made a harsh example of the tree. Gaunt limbs swept downwind, it seems to gesture with tragic defiance, a hunched old man declaiming a soliloquy to the wilderness.

Sevigne looks up for his mark. He has drifted off course, slapped east by the waves. Face swivelling upwind for breath he inhales mouthfuls of water; the big lake is aggressively alive. A strange, sly numbness begins creeping upward from his toes and down from the tips of his fingers, so in minutes his feet and hands are all but impervious to the water's bite. Then his ankles, wrists. A cold gangrene is bleeding inward to his vitals. He tries to cup fingers hard for a proper draw and flutter-kick with his feet but he can't feel them and he's slowing though he's working harder, millwheeling arms like a panicked novice. His forearms and calves are gone and now the anaesthesia reaches into his thighs; he can't be sure if his feet are still kicking. He fights on, buffeted by waves, eyes straining into the depths for any sign of shore. They say it's painless. When the numbness touches the heart, he thinks, and peers up: the contorted pine is close but his legs are sinking, only his arms working on, clutching and pulling at the water as if on a line tossed from the bank. Something unbalances him and he rises as if shoved from below. He tries to stand, sags back in, onto all fours. The shallows by the creekfall are cloudy and warm. He's spitting through chattering teeth, weakly laughing, groping his way in to shore. With the arthritic choppy steps of an old man he runs uphill along the creek within sight of the crosses at the meadow's edge and through the pine woods to the tower. In the light chamber he turns the heater to full, buries himself in his sleeping bag and blankets and lies shivering until dark, eating trail mix and sipping rye in hot sweetened milk.


The day the monarchs appear it's as if a low streak of windblown cirrus orange with sunset is approaching from the north under puffs of high cumulus, noon-white and becalmed. In the smoky warmth of Indian summer Sevigne, working with a plane on the warped front door of the house and thinking of Torrins, stops, the tool loose in his hand. This morning Dave Dawson reported the butterflies would be winging it south for Mexico over the Trans-Canada and Whitefish Bay, so drivers and boaters ought to keep their eyes peeled. Then, while an interviewer with a heavy cold snuffled in the background, a naturalist explained how in crossing the lake the monarchs would make a wide detour, each generation turning at exactly the same point. It was thought that perhaps they were retracing the flyway of prehistoric ancestors who'd had to steer around a mountain or a giant glacier. As the monarchs pass overhead he can see they're not flying in the solid formation Torrins once described; from far off their numbers only make it seem that way. In fact they're gradually dispersing, like long-distance runners spreading out over a course. A few stragglers loop low over the woods, wind-whirled autumn leaves, while others alight on Nile Islet as if fooled by the goldenrod flickering there like kin. Now it seems to Sevigne he understands their trajectory, that phantom detour, the obstacle once encountered, which--like an old flame or parent fought with and seemingly transcended--goes on exerting influence, nudging you towards the paths you believe you choose.

Editorial Reviews

"One hears instantly in the first few pages the sound of a writer who in his first novel has already found his style. Fluid, rhythmical, full of force and grace, his sentences compel you to keep reading."—Wayne Johnston

"The Shadow Boxer is symphonic, Mahler-like, in its shifting intensities as it makes segues between the sensory and the psychological—I can't think of another writer, not even Ondaatje, who can be so real while being so mannered. And musical."—The Globe and Mail
"Heighton is a heavyweight—a master of realist narrative. [Here] what is old is made new again by pure virtuosity of execution."—Vancouver Sun
"Deeply imagined, strongly felt, and—deliberately unfashionable. In a good way."—Toronto Life
"Steven Heighton is a writer of high intelligence and wit, an immaculate and sesualist stylist whose prose moves fluidly from the acerbic to the erotic." --Janette Turner Hospital

"Heighton is like a young Ondaatje…a superb craftsman at ease in foreign places and distant times." —The Globe and Mail

"Hypnotic, tense and rich…Heighton’s material is authentic; the scenes are exciting and true." —Quill and Quire

"Heighton is artful both in conveying atmosphere — he has a sharp eye for the texture of life — and narrating a series of engrossing adventures." —Toronto Star

"A rich, multi-layered novel…a remarkable journey of creative and spiritual self-discovery." —eye weekly, (4 star review)

"Vivid and powerfully drawn…an energetic, fluent and interesting novel by a writer who has shown himself to be gifted, capable of exploring and experimenting with language." —The Times Literary Supplement

"A bravura performance, intense and poetic…The Shadow Boxer fizzes with life and energy [and] has a swaggering, larger-than-life quality.”" —Independent on Sunday

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