With the release of Coming Ashore, Catherine Gildiner completes her trilogy of memoirs – the first two being 1999’s Too Close to the Falls (covering ages 4–12) and 2009’s After the Falls (ages 13–20). Thanks to Gildiner’s wry, sassy tone, vivid imagery, and often ludicrous scenarios, the books read very much like fiction, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, much of Gildiner’s gift as a storyteller is her ability to imbue anecdotes with hefty doses of humour.
In Coming Ashore, Gildiner focuses on her early- to mid-twenties. In the prefatory author’s note, the former psychologist claims this volume will be her last, out of respect for the privacy of those who are still living. “It is one thing to give an account of my own life in the subjective terms that a memoir necessitates, but it is quite another to describe the thoughts and feelings of those who travel with me.”
The book opens in 1968 with Gildiner coming home to Buffalo from Ohio, where she’s been attending university. In Buffalo, she is questioned by the FBI about her involvement with a civil-rights organization and links to the unsolved murder of a drug dealer. Deciding that it might be best to get out of the U.S. for a while, she accepts a scholarship to Oxford University to study poetry. Like many of the defining moments in Gildiner’s life, the scholarship comes about by accident: in an amphetamine-fuelled burst of creativity, she writes a “Book Thirteen” to Milton’s Paradise Lost instead of a traditional essay for one of her university courses. Her professor, a visiting scholar from Oxford, mistakes her for a poetic genius and arranges for her to study with him in England. The fact that she’d never written a poem before, nor would she ever again, doesn’t end up making a bit of difference.
It’s astounding how often this type of situation arises in Gildiner’s life. Either she creates absurd circumstances or they simply find her. In the first book, she famously recounts meeting a semi-clothed Marilyn Monroe while on a delivery run for her father’s pharmacy in Lewiston, New York. In this instalment, it’s Jimi Hendrix who makes a cameo appearance. Gildiner and her Oxford mates see him perform at a London club. Months later, her friend Margaret-Ann, believing she has terminal cancer, tells Gildiner her one wish is to lose her virginity to Hendrix before she dies. Somehow, Gildiner makes it happen.
Gildiner comes across as spontaneous and fun, but also horribly pig-headed, unwilling to take advice from anyone if it is contrary to what she wants to do. The one exception to this rule is Roy; the pharmacy delivery man was her only real childhood friend, and features prominently in all her remembrances. Even her own parents – the father she was close to until her turbulent teenaged years (during which he developed a brain tumour and slowly lost his faculties) and her eccentric mother – don’t get as much play as Roy, though Gildiner claims they were the best parents she could have hoped for, primarily because they let her be her wacky self at a time when wackiness was frowned upon.
As the narrative moves along, Gildiner takes readers from Oxford back to Cleveland, and eventually to Toronto. Each location provides more fodder for Gildiner’s cache of improbable anecdotes. When she leaves Ohio to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Toronto, Gildiner manages to unwittingly get an apartment with members of the FLQ before moving on to living (platonically) with a drug dealer at the infamous Rochdale College co-op. Again, this stuff just happens to her.
If Gildiner has one fault as an author, it is her tendency to self-aggrandize. Every recreated (or reimagined) conversation features her witty banter, humourous zingers, or deadly ripostes. At Oxford, she brazenly disregards long-standing traditions and makes light of the incredible academic opportunity that has landed in her lap. She rightly gives her friends a dressing down for their antiquated classist attitudes, but does so perched atop her American high horse, which sours the moment.
Likewise, she casts herself as a (tall, blonde, very white) aspirational figure in the lives of disgruntled black youth when she takes a job as a student teacher in Cleveland’s Hough neighbourhood, which was still suffering the aftereffects of race riots. The sense that Gildiner is often tootling along in her own little world, where her actions are always justified and damn anyone who doesn’t think she’s just peachy becomes grating. It would be unbearable were it not for the instances in which she displays humility or vulnerability. These often occur when she’s remembering Roy or expressing regret about how her relationship with her father deteriorated.
Coming Ashore is an entertaining, often very funny book by a woman who knows how to spin a good tale. If readers can forgive Gildiner for her tendency to cast herself as the star of every scene (the book is about her life, after all), they will be rewarded with a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.