Book review: Bill Gaston’s The World may be his best yet

TheWorldGlobe

The World

by Bill Gaston

With his latest novel, The World, Bill Gaston has proved once again to be a writer with two great strengths: compassion and technical virtuosity.

The World lives up to its grandiose title, even though it refers to a very small world—an island near Victoria, BC, where lepers were segregated in the nineteenth century. They were left there to suffer and die, without help other than a weekly boat delivery of the most rudimentary necessities, including opium.

The main story isn’t about that island, though—it is Stuart Price’s story, set in present-day Victoria. Stuart is a typical Gaston character in that he’s basically a good guy (though slightly wonky) fallen on hard times. His wife left him for a Buddhist group five years earlier and he is estranged from his daughter Jennifer. But the hard times covered in this book begin with a fire that destroys Stuart’s house. Ironically, the fire began when he burned his mortgage documents to celebrate making his final payment on the house with his lump-sum pension. Now, at fifty-one, having taken early retirement, he is homeless, jobless, and down to a couple thousand dollars in savings. What about house insurance? The hapless Stuart discovers that he failed to make his latest insurance payment because of forgetfulness and a series of unfortunate coincidences.

Stuart embarks on a cross-country drive to Toronto in his dying ’96 Datsun with a dual purpose: to meet the faceless decision-makers in the upper echelons of the insurance bureaucracy who have denied his appeal for coverage of the fire; and to visit one of his life’s greatest friends, Mel, who has recently written him a note hinting that her esophageal cancer has recurred.

It is one of Gaston’s extraordinary gifts that he can make the most awful, unlucky losers lovable and deserving of our empathy and even respect—for their sheer persistence. And what else but a loser can we call Stuart when his car finally dies completely in Parry Sound, a couple of hundred kilometres from his destination, after broken glasses, an expensive double eye operation, and a severe case of head lice have left him penniless and bald?

The valiant Stuart makes it to Toronto, where his friend Mel “rescues” him after a heartless policeman puts in him a jail cell for protesting the cop’s treatment of a homeless man.
The reunion with his old friend (and lover, we learn), turns the tide for Stuart, but it would be unfair to say that The World becomes cheerful at this point. Mel is very close to death, and her father is in the Alzheimer’s ward of a care home. Stuart is Mel’s driver on their daily trips to her father’s institution, but more than that, he becomes Mel’s ally in the ongoing battle to hold on to the remnants of her father’s memory and intelligence.

Mel’s father, Hal, a.k.a. M.H. Dobbs, was an academic historian, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Victoria. Before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he published The World. This is the story-within-a-story of Gaston’s book. Mel introduces Stuart to her practice of reading her father’s book to him during her visits. Doing so, she believes, evokes his memories and sometimes prompts him to make comments that give clues about the mysterious parts of his life.

Is The World, a supposedly fictional story of researcher Michael Bodleian’s discovery of a 130-year-old manuscript written by the sole female living in the leper colony near Victoria, BC, really a novel? How much of Bodleian’s story of his affair with the translator of his document, a Chinese woman named Naomi, is really Dobbs’ own experience? Could the book explain why Hal deserted his wife and daughter to live for fourteen years in Nepal?

Stuart becomes the regular reader during his and Mel’s visits to her father. He is drawn, tantalizingly, into The World, but more importantly, into the present worlds of both Mel and Hal: he is a witness and a support for both, the one living through her final painful days, the other living through his last fleeting moments of lucidity.

Gaston expertly switches points of view as the book progresses. He begins with Stuart, but later allows the reader into Mel’s mind. Irony abounds in this book, but it is never more bittersweet than in the contrast between the wild Mel Stuart used to know—the one who smoked, drank, took drugs, cooked, and ate with irrepressible gusto—and the dying woman who can no longer eat or drink except by injecting liquid food into a tube. Even with this grim situation, Gaston can show the undying light of a human spirit. One of the final scenes of the book paints a picture of Stuart, Mel, and Hal at a Korean restaurant. Mel scandalizes the other diners by putting spicy food on her tongue to savour it, then spitting it into a glass, and she gets increasingly drunk as she injects wine into her feeding tube.

Gaston even has the audacity to write a section of the book from Hal’s point of view, getting inside the mind of a once-brilliant man now nearing the advances stages of Alzheimer’s.

All three points of view are executed believably; all increase readers’ understanding of both Stuart’s story and the nested stories about Michael Bodleian and the leper woman’s account. All the stories are interconnected through their related ethical questions: Is it fair to claim to be able to write from the point of view of a leper, or a dying person, or a person suffering from Alzheimer’s? Is it fair to abandon those closest to you in a search for self-fulfillment?

The World is satisfyingly complex in its details and narrative structure, yet it is easy to read, drawing you in with its moving characters and their mysterious lives. I read most of the book on a single Toronto-Vancouver flight!

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Book review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Cover of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

In The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes has written with an understated courage about the tragedy of a man’s coming face to face with his own failings and self-deception near the end of his life.

It’s a sad book because the protagonist, Anthony Webster, gains his wisdom too late—by his own estimation. It’s too late to change his mistakes or to make amends for them. All he has left is “regret, guilt and remorse”—with remorse being the strongest and most terrible of the three, according to Anthony.

Yet it’s a beautiful book, because it is beautifully written. Anthony is carefully, sympathetically drawn. He is a kind of Everyman. He is not evil (though when shown a letter he had written four decades earlier, he is shocked by his own jealousy-provoked viciousness); rather he is by turns bumbling, self-centred, passive, and insensitive. I can only gasp at Barnes’s writing skill; somehow, he makes us like Anthony in spite of (or because of?) his ordinariness, his lack of heroic qualities.

The Sense of an Ending is a very good novel until the last four pages. But it’s the shocker ending that most displays the author’s virtuosity. Like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, like Bill Gaston’s The Good Body, this is a book that demands rereading to figure out just how the writer was able to put it all together with such ingenuity.

I don’t have to give away the ending to explain the source of the book’s power. I think it comes from the comparison of our own lives with Anthony’s. If we are old, do we share his emotions, or have we lived more fully? If we are middle-aged, this book is a warning. Anthony’s revelations come too late. There were points in his life when he could have been more honest with himself and others about what he felt and what he wanted. He could have made other choices instead of going with the current, following the path of least resistance.

I don’t need Anthony’s warning.

Going through a textbook mid-life crisis, I changed my life completely between the ages of 48 and 52. Some of the choices I made were planned—going back to school to train for a new career as a writer and leaving my husband—but others were not. I didn’t count on wrecking my knee and losing my running career, which was such a big part of my identity. I didn’t know my coach George Gluppe’s health would deteriorate rapidly and that he would pass away last April. I wouldn’t have chosen to have everything in my life go all topsy-turvy within the space of a few years.

But there were many stimulating and joyful beginnings, times of being amazed by the realization: It’s not too late!
There are also those middle-of-the-night times of panic, when the darkness spreads to gut-deep despair and my fear: I’ve left it too late!

But I can only start from today, and welcome my unfolding new life. I don’t know how it will all turn out. I don’t know what my “sense of an ending” will be, two or three or four decades from now (if I live that long). All I can know for sure is that I won’t share Anthony’s remorse about not having tried to change.

Book Review: Bill Gaston’s The Good Body

Cover of The Good Body by Bill Gaston

The Good Body was published in 2000.

With The Good Body, his 2000 breakthrough novel, Bill Gaston proved two things: he is a writer of dazzling virtuosity, and a man with a huge heart. How else to explain the way he can get inside the minds of such a wide variety of characters, each flawed, whether pitiful, cruel, despicable, or self-righteous—and make us able to see each person in a sympathetic light? Gaston’s protagonist in this novel is Bobby Bonaduce, a man who’s been a minor league hockey player for twenty years. Now, at forty, he knows his 50-second period of ice time during an emergency call-up from the Leafs will be his only taste of the big time. Worse, he’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is already experiencing symptoms of his body’s betrayal.

When his minor league Tulsa team folds, Bonaduce decides to return to his hometown, Fredericton. It’s an impulsive decision propelled by a letter from his son Jason. Bonaduce has rarely seen his wife Leah or his son since he abandoned both nearly twenty years before. Now, Jason has written that he’s going to the University of New Brunswick and will play on the varsity hockey team. Bonaduce, in denial about his MS, plans to enrol in the university as a masters student in creative writing and join his son on the team.

A combination of bravado, determination, and plagiarism allows Bonaduce to achieve the first part of his goal—getting accepted into the grad program in creative writing.

After that, his struggles are constant and heart-wrenching. Living in a decrepit house with a group of students, Bonaduce strikes up a friendship with an overweight young woman. The two enjoy playing Yahtzee, a game played with five dice and their many permutations. If life is a roll of the dice, Bonaduce has an endless string of bad rolls. Yet against the background of his ever-worsening MS symptoms, Bonaduce fights with immense spirit. He’s not allowed to play on the varsity team. His fellow students and teachers, mostly humourless academics stuck in their ivory-tower world, repel his attempts at friendship.

As if his physical and financial problems aren’t enough, Bonaduce is also emotionally devastated. He is still in love with Leah, but she is in a long-standing relationship with a lawyer named Oscar, a man who couldn’t be less like Bobby Bonaduce. And Bonaduce is obsessed with his hope of establishing a good father-son relationship with Jason, who remains distant and uncaring. Gaston is masterful at depicting the torment Bonaduce goes through, his adolescent-like desire for Leah and the biological power of his guilt about the son he’s never gotten to know.

Gaston’s writing is so extraordinary that I could probably find quote-worthy examples on every page of the book. He’s especially good at his portrayals of minor league hockey, whether using his authorial voice or through Bonaduce’s class writing “samples.” We understand both the shame of being “only” a minor-league player, and the overriding love of the game that motivates these men.

On the ice is where it really happened. The brilliance of some. All senses sparking, working at the widest periphery, aflame with danger and hope both, seeing the whole picture, the lightning-fast flux of friends and enemies, the blending of opportunity and threat. Words didn’t stand a chance here. Words were candy wrappers, dead leaves.

I could relate to Bonaduce’s experience of being an aging athlete. It’s hard to let go. It’s never the same being a coach or spectator as being an athlete. The middle-aged body can still feel a joy in action that brings back the sense-memory of how the body moved in its prime. It’s only the damning evidence of stopwatch or camera that shows the body’s deterioration.

As Bonaduce’s life spirals down towards catastrophe, we cringe, we bleed at life’s unfairness. We love this man. Despite his flaws, he’s a hero because he gives everything, he keeps fighting, he finds redeeming slivers in the wreck his life is becoming. This is a book that gets down to life’s basics: love, sex, sensual beauty, mortality. Here is Gaston writing about what Bonaduce is thinking after his one illicit encounter with Leah in a local motel:

C’mon Leah, you did feel it. Pretty little angel eyes. Angel eyes, what a perfect two-word description of love, love that went both ways.

And more about the intimacy that Bonaduce and Leah can’t deny:

Each time they met eyes, they got a version of each other that was surprising and too too full, a potency forcing them to look away, except for a brief few times when they made themselves hold it.

Even Oscar, after finding out about the encounter, acknowledges that Leah and Bonaduce have “unfinished business.” But it’s Bonaduce who knows “there is no end to that kind of business.” The sexual attraction between him and Leah is inextinguishable.

It takes a fearless, peerless writer to make us care about his protagonist as much as we care about Bonaduce, and then give his story a tragic conclusion. But this is real life; this is what makes The Good Body a work of great literature. Redemption comes from Gaston’s sympathetic insight into a wide variety of characters, all fully-fleshed; the gallows humour that pervades Bonaduce’s thoughts; and the indomitable spirit that enables this hero to experience friendship, love, intellectual challenges, and hope in the face of terrible odds.

***

Bill Gaston’s latest novel, The World, was recently given a rave review by Diane Baker Mason in The Globe and Mail. Read it here.

I never read a review of a book before I write my own review, because I don’t want my reading or critiquing to be influenced by someone else’s opinion. However, while googling for a photo of The Good Body I accidentally came across a review of it that I thought was spot-on and profound. If you’re not already sick of reading about this book, read Angie Abdou’s review here.