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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Nancy Huston’s Plainsong evokes my sense of Canadian identity

Cover of Nancy Huston's Plainsong

Canadian-born writer Nancy Huston has long been one of my favourite writers, and while reading Plainsong (published in 1993) I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. The novel is filled with compelling characters and history, and written with Huston’s characteristic poetic, intimate style.

Yet my main purpose in writing this post is not to cover Plainsong as a traditional book review. Instead, I’m more interested in the lines of thought this four-generation story provoked, the way it revealed my unconscious absorption of Canadian identity and history.

Make no mistake; Plainsong is a damn good story. Though it contains a cast of many characters, its protagonist is Paddon Sterling, born in 1900. This multi-generational story, though centred upon Paddon, is narrated by his granddaughter Paula. It’s an unflinching telling of the deprivation, hardship, abuse, and lost dreams that characterized the lives of many who lived in the late 1800s or through the years of the two World Wars and the Depression.

Plainsong grabbed me and kept me reading when I should have been working during the day, and sleeping at night. I read about Paddon’s father suffering through the punishing cold and poverty of the Gold Rush, and then how Paddon, trapped unwillingly into the life of a small-town Prairie schoolteacher, struggled to provide food for his family during the Depression.

It made me reflect that we modern people don’t know what work and suffering are compared to what these people went through. Now, we think about “achieving our potential” and “finding fulfilling work”, but people of Paddon’s generation grimly did whatever they could to survive. Most of their work was backbreaking, soul-destroying and boring. They were forced to give up their dreams at a very young age (at university, Paddon thinks he’ll become a great philosopher).

Plainsong depicts (realistically, I think), the way even passionate love and lust could be destroyed by privation and suffering. Some people turned to alcohol as their only comfort, and this often led to the abuse of women and children, victims of previously decent men’s frustration and despair.

Many people died of hunger or disease, or chose suicide as the only possible exit from an unbearable life. There wasn’t much social assistance. Families took care of their own—or didn’t. (In Plainsong, Paddon’s uncle, whom Paddon has been close to since childhood, loses his farm and asks Paddon if he can live with his family. Paddon has to refuse his uncle’s desperate request when his wife pleads with him to save their limited food for their children.)

But some couples’ commitment and loyalty to each other were unshakeable. Today, it’s hard to imagine having the stoicism and sheer capacity for hard work—manual, repetitive work—that my grandparents’ generation had to endure. Men worked like horses and women gave up everything for their children.

Much of the reason I liked Plainsong was because I felt connected to its events. On the surface, this seems absurd—I’m a modern, urban person—how could I possibly relate to the historical events of the settling of the Prairies, the Gold Rush, the World Wars, and the Depression?

Well, my own grandparents lived through most of these events. As a child, I knew three of my grandparents well. One of my grandfathers grew up on a farm; my mother spent her childhood summers at the family farm when it still lacked electricity and running water. I visited the modernized farm and met my second cousins when I was a teenager.

Another way I started learning about “the pioneers” at a very young age was by visiting Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village with my family and on school field trips. (This “living museum” town opened to the public in 1960 and is still thriving now.) The “village” includes many original/restored buildings dating from 1816 to the 1860s. They are filled with furniture and artifacts from the 1800s, and costumed guides explain what daily life and work were like in a small Ontario village in the 1800s. I remember being amazed at how much the pioneers did “from scratch”—for example, not only sewing clothes, but shearing their own sheep for wool, carding the wool, spinning it, weaving it to make cloth, then dyeing it using juices from local berries.

People were similarly self-sufficient with respect to food. They grew everything, using their scarce cash for only a few precious staples. Food was simple—and in the winter, when almost everything was pickled or heavily salted, not very plentiful or appetizing.

Through the shared experience of my parents and grandparents, my personal “family memory” goes back over a hundred years now. Yet I think I’ve absorbed Canadian history and a sense of the roots of Canadian identity more from literature than from personal knowledge.

The first books I read that taught me something about the spirit and daily life of the pioneers who opened up the American (and Canadian) West were Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Wilder’s books tell the story of her childhood as she moves West with her family in a series of covered wagon trips. Reading the sixth book in the series, The Long Winter, I learned that even in a rich country like the United States, whose Eastern states were cultured and sophisticated by the 1880s, people could still starve in the American West when a harsh winter stopped the trains from getting through. (By then, the buffalo were being decimated, an issue that Wilder’s books largely ignore. In contrast, Huston’s Plainsong addresses the issue of how Native Americans were treated; in fact the love of Paddon’s life is a half-breed woman.)

As I got older, I read other Canadian and American classics that taught me more about harsh times in those young nations’ histories: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, and short stories (whose names I don’t remember) set on the bleak and empty prairies. What must it have been like for people to see no one other than their own family members for months at a time? To be completely self-reliant even in times of drought, childbirth, and medical emergencies? I don’t think we, now, can even imagine the loneliness and brutal conditions faced by the early prairie settlers.

Plainsong shares, with the classics I’ve mentioned above, the emotional appeal of complicated characters who are trapped by their historical and geographical settings. The reminded me how much reading has shaped my knowledge of my world, and more specifically, how it contributed to my understanding of what a “Canadian identity” is.

More than that, Plainsong reminded me of the pure pleasure of reading, of being drawn into a world of fictional characters that seems real. Isn’t this the easiest way to learn? I wonder how many young people still read books that take them into the lives of previous generations. And even though I love all the possibilities that the online world has opened up for communication, entertainment, and learning, I feel some regret that my time spent online has caused me to almost abandon my long hours of reading.

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.