Some drunks are mean, violent, and needy. Others, like Bill Gaston’s late father, act like a “gentleman” when sober and a “frat boy” when drunk. But even these tamer drinkers can be hard to forgive for their many lies and inappropriate actions. Gaston is best known for his fiction, including the short-story collections Gargoyles (shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award) and Mount Appetite (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize). His latest book abandons the fictional mode in favour of a memoir about the author’s relationship with his alcoholic old man.
Just Let Me Look at You is written tenderly, even when some of the details are rough and shocking. Growing up, Gaston’s love of his father alternated with disgust at the elder man’s drinking. Gaston recognizes that his imperfect father loved him mightily, even though drinking often got in the way of their relationship. In the words of Gaston’s mother, “Your father never had a father so he never learned to be one.”
Much of the book is about father-son fishing trips in B.C. On a boat “mooching” for salmon (look it up: it’s complicated), the two bonded more than they ever did on land. Readers who are not avid anglers may become impatient at the lengthy, albeit well-written, fish tales. Fishing addicts, however, will think they have died and gone to heaven.
Gaston provides a credible analysis of his alcoholic parent. The author gradually comes to understand that his father, a successful business executive, was afraid of authority figures. He also suffered from low self-esteem and an inability to deal with the memories of his own tormented childhood. In a poignant deathbed scene at the end of the book, the son forgives the dying father, having recently uncovered secrets of the latter’s reason to drink: an abusive childhood at the hands of his own violently alcoholic, largely absent father.
Missing from the story is much information about other family members. How did Gaston’s mother and brother cope over the years? These omissions are glaring and weaken the narrative. Gaston says his brother “chose to opt out of this” and “has his own story to tell.” One assumes it would be a very different story. Every father-son relationship, even in the same dysfunctional family, is unique.