Novelist, dramatist, poet, and short-story writer Bill Gaston is a quadruple threat, but it’s with his stories that he’s had the most measurable success (his 2002 collection, Mount Appetite, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; 2006’s Gargoyles for a Governor General’s Literary Award). Gaston’s work has a number of recurring themes, yet the range of situations he uses to explore them consistently astonishes; ditto his ability to temper the macabre and the cringeworthy with humour.
“House Clowns,” the opening story in Gaston’s latest collection, is so nastily brilliant it forces everything else in the book, worthy though it might be, to sit slightly under its shadow. A nameless professor on leave finds that his lakeside rental cottage has been double-booked. Like him, we’re initially unsure which way is up: is the grubby, carless young couple that arrives at the cottage just a pair of grifters? The protagonist’s increasing paranoia culminates in an Ian McEwanesque incident in a canoe, where even the sun is “hot, stern, and instructive.”
The story’s doubled-edged theme, which could roughly be summed up as the deceptiveness of appearances and the difficulty of interpreting the intentions of others, runs through the collection like a red thread. During a scrappy night of camping and chicken theft, the narrator of “Cake’s Chicken” discovers that his two partners in crime are not the hardcore partiers he took them for and, further, one of them has powerful psychic abilities limited only by his dimwittedness. In “Four Corners,” a mutual-fund salesman’s breakup plans get railroaded when his secretary girlfriend surprises him with a dinnertime introduction to her passive-aggressive father.
The theme is there, too, in “Petterick,” in which a 24-year-old virgin finally makes a move on his putative girlfriend, only to discover that their signals were hopelessly crossed and that the fetid smell in her apartment has a disturbingly personal source.
Juliet Was a Surprise is great fun: another robust, distinctive collection from one of our most intriguing practitioners of the form.