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Sex Is Red

by Bill Gaston

In this age of short attention spans and quick fixes, the short story should be more popular than it is with readers. But short story collections seldom put a gleam in the eye of publishers and agents and hardly ever make it onto bestseller lists.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but if you ask me universities and the emergence of the creative writing workshop have a lot to answer for, especially in this short-story-happy country. Somewhere along the line somebody got the bright idea that stories have to be elliptical. In other words, they are required to leave readers scratching their heads, essentially unsatisfied.

Bill Gaston’s Sex Is Red, has an elliptical title, but fortunately that’s the only thing about this fine book that is self- consciously evasive. Gaston’s fiction, set mainly in his native New Brunswick and mainly about middle-aged men trying to make sense of their lives, is lively, witty, and blessed with a good feel for the absurd.

These tales may not be tall enough to make anybody crane their necks, but they are entertainingly strange. In “The Divine Rights of Kings,” a British lord and his family unexpectedly show up to vacation at a campsite in PEI; in “With Your Hand in Satan’s Gleaming Guts,” a Unabomber-style terrorist breaks into his neighbours’ homes to fiddle with their evil television sets.

One of the best stories in the collection is the first one. In “Saving Eve’s Father,”a young man figures out an ingenious way to stop his girlfriend’s father from throwing his life away – and the futures of his children – at a video gambling machine. The premise doesn’t sound all that promising, but Gaston’s saving grace is his affection for fools, dreamers, and misfits, small-timers who manage to beat the odds from time to time.

Victories do tend to be Pyrrhic in Sex Is Red, but it’s easy to see which side Gaston is on. In the title story, a man waits 20 years to get his revenge on the woman who spurned him. It’s a gentle revenge in the end, and even inspires admiration – as well as shame – in his victim. In “The Night He Put His Clothes Back On,” a divorced man goes against the contemporary grain by refusing to get in touch with his feelings or expose his naked emotions. Instead, he hides, quite literally, behind all the armour he can find.

If Gaston’s characters go a little crazy, they usually have a good reason – their lives are a little crazy. They are certainly not what they expected them to be. Which is why we forgive these slightly bewildered men and women their crude bravado (“Your First Time”) and their drunken miscalculations (“Dug”).

Life is indeed weird, a fact Gaston makes the most of in Sex Is Red. In“Wisdom,” a father dies young and leaves behind a series of letters for his three children, one to be opened on each of their birthdays. This touching but macabre ritual keeps the family together, but it also keeps them trapped in the past, haunted by a well-meaning ghost. It is Gaston at his best: clear, clever, and compassionate.