The characters in Bill Gaston’s new story collection are almost all haunted by thoughts of what might have been, or else perched on the verge of making mistakes they’ll rue for years to come. But for all the questionable or bad decisions, the true common denominator is choice – the autonomy to fail on one’s own terms. For better or worse, they do it their way.
Gaston occupies a position of respect and acclaim in the national literary landscape without being a household name. His 2002 story collection, Mount Appetite, was shortilsted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and he was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2006 (for the collection Gargoyles) and again in 2014 (for the collection Juliet Was a Surprise.) As far back as 1999, a critic for The Globe and Mail suggested that Gaston belongs in the company of “Findley, Atwood, and Munro,” and of that holy trinity, he’s probably closest to the last, being neither a conceptualist like Findley nor an allegorist à la Atwood. His gift, which he shares with Munro, is to convey interiority without seeming superior.
Which is not to say that he’s a soft touch. “I was just trying to be nice,” offers the narrator of “Carla’s Dead Wife,” trying in advance to explain away an act of supreme hostility. Most of the entries in A Mariner’s Guide to Self Sabotage contain a similar moment of equivocation, where somebody tries to convince us that the thing they’re doing (or that they’ve already done) isn’t so bad after all.
None of the stories in this collection are beholden to genre, though Gaston’s handle on the mechanics of suspense is such that a few feel as pressurized as a good thriller. In the droll, unsettling “Anonymous,” a woman vacationing with her boyfriend becomes convinced he’s going to propose marriage and starts going through the motions en route to the fateful moment while privately bristling with ambivalence: “[H]ere she was now on a beautiful Mexican holiday, staring at him unblinking, her mind basically a baited trap.” The lonely protagonist of “The Church of Manna, Revelator,” contemplating the lucrative inheritance he’s squandered by living too hard too fast, understands he’s on a hopeless odyssey, but can’t possibly see the punchline coming. The central figure in “Drilling a Hole in Your Boat” has planned his own, even more deliberate act of self-sabotage down to the last millimetre, but struggles to reconcile exactly how he feels about it.
The latter story demonstrates Gaston’s willingness to experiment with form within the boundaries of strict, everyday realism, unfolding a second-person narration that turns the story into something akin to a choose-your-own-adventure book: the style enfolds the reader in a position of pure, unmediated complicity. The author plays deftly with epistolary style in “Hello:,” which comes framed as a final piece of correspondence from a father to his daughter, and mounts a dialogue-only duet for “The Return of Count Flatula” – at once the bitterest and funniest piece here – imagining both sides of an unexpected phone conversation between ex-lovers that wittily wrings variations on the idea of payback.
Revelation through offhand humour is a winning strategy, and it’s only when Gaston strives for profundity that his gifts betray him. Although beautifully written, “Oscar Peterson’s Warm Brown Bench” feels constrained by good intentions, and is fuzzy around the edges where the other stories are more sharply serrated. The one that really draws blood is “Kiint,” about the uneasy friendship between two workers at a B.C. fish farm, one a middle-aged lifer, the other a post-collegiate idealist, both labouring in the shadows of larger frustrations. A glancing nod late in the proceedings to Ken Kesey’s Demon Box points up a lurking subtext of social critique without giving the game away entirely.
This reference is the only time that A Mariner’s Guide to Self Sabotage betrays any specific literary influences, and while the best measure of originality may not be an absence of allusions, it’s gratifying to read something written with such self-contained confidence. It may be that Bill Gaston is so skilled at what he does that comparing him to the masters of Canadian literature is beside the point; better to flag any younger writers who approach his level of craft and imaginative empathy.