Gaston, Bill 1953–
Gaston, Bill 1953–
PERSONAL: Born January 14, 1953, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; son of Robert A. and Mary Jean Gaston; married Edythe Crane; children: Lise, Connor, Vaughn, Lilli. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A., 1975, M.A., 1978, M.F.A., 1981.
ADDRESSES: Home—Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Office—Department of Writing, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8W 2Y2. Agent—Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency, W.R.P.O. Box 39588, White Rock, British Columbia V4B 5L6, Canada. E-mail—[email protected] finearts.uvic.ca.
CAREER: Worked variously as a logger, salmon fishing guide, group-home worker, and hockey player in the south of France; has taught literature and writing at University of British Columbia, Seneca College, St. Mary's University, Mt. St. Vincent University, and Naropa Institute, beginning c. 1986; former director of creative writing, University of New Brunswick; University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, teacher of literature and writing, 1998–. Writer-in-residence, University of New Brunswick, 1990–92.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prizm International Fiction Contest Award, 1986, for short story "Gold"; CBC/Saturday Night Canadian Literary Award for fiction, 1999, for short story "Where It Comes From, Where It Goes"; Timothy Findley Award, 2003.
Deep Cove Stories (short stories), Oolichan Books (Lantzville, British Columbia, Canada), 1989.
Tall Lives (novel), Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
North of Jesus' Beans (short stories), Cormorant Books (Dunvegan, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
Yardsale (play), 1994.
The Cameraman (novel), Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Inviting Blindness (poetry), Oolichan Books (Lantzville, British Columbia, Canada), 1995.
Bella Combe Journal (novel), Cormorant Books (Dunvegan, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
Sex Is Red (short stories), Cormorant Books (Dunvegan, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
The Good Body (novel), Cormorant Books (Dunvegan, Ontario, Canada), 2000, ReganBooks (New York, NY), 2001.
Mount Appetite (short stories), Raincoast Books (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2002.
Sointula (novel), Raincoast Books (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2004.
Midnight Hockey: All about Beer, the Boys, and the Real Canadian Game, Doubleday Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2006.
Gargoyles (short stories), House of Anansi Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2006.
Also author of the plays New Brunswicker, Ethnic Cleansing, and I Am Danielle Steel. Contributor to Best Canadian Stories, 2001. Former fiction editor, Prism International; former editor, The Fiddlehead.
SIDELIGHTS: Bill Gaston's fiction is rooted in his native Canada and is peopled with unusual characters. "A strange idiot savant, a blind nymphomaniac, a grossly obese philosopher" are some of Gaston's creations noted by Books in Canada writer Nancy Bauer. His characters are often deformed or suffer from debilitations; they are outcasts who have no defined role in society. In the course of his novels and stories, Gaston's characters strive to gain a greater understanding of their life and relationships, often from the perspective middle age has afforded them after a hard life full of mistakes and regrets. Their journeys of self-discovery are peppered with unlikely events and characters more bizarre than themselves. "Gaston's highly developed sense of the absurd," observed Bauer, "gives a depth and richness to his innate comic genius." Widely praised by literary critics as a skilled storyteller, Gaston has unfortunately gained little audience attention outside Canada, though one Kirkus Reviews contributor asserted that the author "may be to Canadian fiction what Ken Kesey was to American fiction of the 1960s: a renegade lyricist with a soaring, ineffably generous narrative imagination." A Toronto Globe & Mail critic was also laudatory, calling the author "quite possibly one of our nation's most unsung, highly skilled writers."
Deep Cove Stories, Gaston's first published collection, mixes far-flung concepts and images with realistic scenarios in a series of twelve linked stories. The narrator of "The Forest Path to Malcolm's" claims that he is the illegitimate son of writer Malcolm Lowry and the cougar who appears in Lowry's story "The Forest Path to the Spring." More conventionally, the story "The Bronze Miracle" is a straightforward suspense tale about a boy and a clerk in a convenience store. The range of stories in the collection confounded some critics, including George Payerle of Books in Canada, who claimed that the collection "can make the reader highly cantankerous," but who ultimately called Gaston a "writer with a powerful, unsettling vision that plays the gamut from the tragic to the hilarious, the outrageous to the sublime." Books in Review contributor Margaret Doyle summarized the book's theme as the "explorations with alcohol, drugs and sex [that] are transformed into ritualistic encounters with legend and myth" among a group of 1960s high school students.
Tall Lives explores the relationship between Siamese twin brothers Frank and Del Baal, born conjoined at the big toe, whose father sawed them apart shortly after their birth. The brothers' unusual bond affects everyone in their lives, from their parents to their spouses and friends. Though both become athletes, their lives diverge immediately after their birth; Del becomes a conventional and sanctimonious football referee and Frank the angst-ridden ne'er-do-well captain of the boat Tammy Wouldn't Die. A series of coincidences brings about the convergence of their lives and an understanding of brotherly love. Gary Draper admitted in Books in Canada that "Gaston works so hard at grotesquerie and coincidence that the reader may sometimes be alienated," but ultimately lauded the novel for being "profoundly affecting" and having "a kind of heroic power in spite of its flaws. The result is a tale of mythic proportions." A reviewer for Canadian Literature described the book as both "a witty comedy of manners complete with clowns, madmen, lovers, and fools" and "a raunchy picaresque."
North of Jesus' Beans is another collection of twelve stories, many of which are set in western Canada. Stories included are "The Revenge of Richard Brautigan," a comic tale about a student who utilizes poetry as a form of passive-aggressiveness, and "Why the Retarded Are Here on Earth," which examines an unexpected love. The title story involves Mark and Donna, former hippies who used to live in a California café called "North of Jesus' Beans," and who now wish to adopt a child. They counteract their stultifying careers with the Canadian government by smoking pot and watching television. Mary Frances Hill, reviewing the collection for Books in Canada, described Gaston's style as one in which "humour walks with torment, intellectuals are morons, and the strength of nature feeds powerful lusts." A reviewer for Canadian Literature complimented Gaston's "Escher-like" prose style.
The novel The Cameraman traipses back and forth through time as it recounts the entwined lives of two filmmakers: Koz, an Academy Award-winning director, and his protégé and cameraman, Francis. The central plot twist involves whether or not Francis inadvertently films Koz murdering an actress on the set of one of their movies. Koz, a wunderkind in the studio, is an elusive figure, and though Francis has been his closest friend for years, he admits he knows very little about the eccentric filmmaker. Complicating matters is Francis's affair with screen siren Bev Boomershire, Koz's wife. The twists and turns of the plot are difficult to summarize, according to Katheryn Broughton in Canadian Materials, who nevertheless praised the novel for being "fascinating, compelling and incredible." The story is told from Francis's perspective, and Gaston uses a cinematic style in his writing. "Francis thinks like a cameraman at all times," wrote Jack Batten in Books in Canada, "on the job and off. He sees people and events in zooms and close-ups, and it's this approach that lets us into his character." But some critics took a different view of the novel. Quill & Quire reviewer Michael McGowan questioned Koz's perverse behavior, stating that it becomes "a problem in a novel in which suspense hinges on deductive reasoning." Admitting, however, that the characters are "believable and often engaging," he concluded that "Gaston fails to explore deeper layers of individuality, ultimately making The Cameraman unsatisfying."
Gaston switched to poetry in Inviting Blindness. Books in Canada contributor Scott Ellis characterized Gaston's spare, free-verse poems as containing the "chiaroscuro of passion" and the "chilled tints of distraction." James Deahl, writing in the Canadian Book Review Annual, admired Gaston's use of plot within his poetry, and singled out "Sex by Numbers," a series of twenty-four related poems, as a good attempt to "move from the frankly erotic to larger issues of psychology and spirituality."
Bella Combe Journal is the first novel Gaston ever wrote, but it was the third to be published. It recounts the life of Vaughn Collin, whose unhappy childhood revolves around his autism, a disappointed mother, and Lise, a handicapped fellow social outcast. The socially awkward Vaughn grows up to be a hockey player, but his various attempts to fit in with both the sports world and polite society go humorously awry. Vaughn and Lise cross paths at various times in their lives, and eventually Lise becomes Vaughn's mother figure and lover, even as she succumbs to a life of prostitution and alcoholism. As he grows older, Vaughn becomes more childlike. Escaping to Europe in the 1960s, he becomes a hippie at the age of forty, and eventually devolves into nothing more than a blubbering child with an exclamation mark tattooed on his forehead. He ships himself in a wooden crate to Bella Combe, British Columbia, to reunite with Lise, who has changed her name to Annie and become more spiritual. She encourages Vaughn to recuperate by writing his life's story.
Summarizing the novel for Canadian Forum, Don McGregor wrote that "reading Bill Gaston's magical prose is sheer pleasure." Furthermore, he called the novel "an allegory of the tragi-comic search for meaning that has led so many to follow false gods to dead ends." Canadian Literature critic David Leahy compared Vaughn's journey to those in the fiction of Rabelais, Margaret Laurence, and Robertson Davies, praising Gaston's "masterful use of the fantastic" in the process.
Gaston's third collection of short stories, Sex Is Red, contains more of the unusual characters and bizarre events for which he is known. "Gaston's saving grace is his affection for fools, dreamers, and misfits, small-timers who manage to beat the odds from time to time," wrote Joel Yanofsky in a review for Quill & Quire. A man seeks revenge on his former lover, twenty years after the fact, in the title story. In "Wisdom" a father continues to rule his children's lives from beyond the grave. Gaston's hankering for the absurd is displayed in "With Your Hand in Satan's Gleaming Guts," the story of a terrorist who breaks into neighbors' houses to tamper with their television sets.
With his next short story collection, Mount Appetite, Gaston gained widespread critical acclaim. The common theme through these dozen tales is, as the title implies, different types of cravings, ranging from alcohol to food to sex. The result is that the author's narrators are quite unreliable, and reviewers noted Gaston's skill at portraying their skewed perspectives. A Publishers Weekly contributor described the stories as "gorgeously observed if sometimes oblique," and a Kirkus Reviews writer concluded that "Gaston is so skillful that he draws you along on the ride, following each narrator's convincing storyline while allowing you simultaneously to sense the distortion of the drug."
Gaston returned to hockey in The Good Body, one of his most successful books and his first novel to be widely available in the United States. The protagonist, Bobby Bonaduce, suffers from multiple sclerosis and returns to his native New Brunswick after a career spent in the minor leagues of hockey. Aiming to insinuate himself back into a life he left years ago, he cheats his way into college so he can play on the varsity hockey team with the son he abandoned in infancy. He also tries to reconcile with his wife, Leah. Quill & Quirereviewer Doug Beardsley admired the novel for its descriptions of hockey life: "Gaston's got the goods and he's been there: you can't imagine something as real as this." Booklist contributor John Green called the book a "powerful story of the relationship between 'body people' and 'head people,'" reminiscent of the work of Leonard Cohen. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commended Gaston's skill as a storyteller: "Told in finely calibrated prose that captures not only the agonizing eloquence of a body betraying its tenant but the rough-edged mumble of a professional athlete's voice, the novel walks a fine line with certainty and grace."
When he was a younger man, preferring a simple existence, Gaston lived on Canada's West Coast in a cabin with no plumbing or telephone and practiced Tibetan Buddhism. Although his life became less simple with, as he once told CA, "a wife and four kids, two cars, a dog, and the guise of a tenured professor," his spirituality continues to inform his work: "I want to jostle and jar [my fiction,]" as he once told interviewer Nancy Bauer. "He hopes the overall intention is good-hearted," Bauer commented. "But within that good intention he likes to be outrageous, likes to remind people of their bodily functions, their tie to the earth."
This longing for ties to the earth permeates Gaston's 2004 novel, Sointula. The heroine of this tale, Evelyn Poole, is a middle-aged woman who abandons her conservative, dull husband (a mayor in a small Canadian town) to seek out her ex-lover Claude, a rugged out-doorsman who is dying. After she manages to spend time with Claude during his final days, she abruptly decides to steal a kayak and go on a perilous trek to find her and Claude's estranged child, Tom, who is now an adult and has become a whale expert. Along the way, she meets Peter Gore, a former high school teacher who wants to become a travel writer. Together, these characters manage to reconnect to the natural world and heal the wounds suffered at the hands of modern civilization. "Gaston is no novelistic miniaturist," commented Ray Robertson in the Globe & Mail, "and almost entirely succeeds in creating a full, rich tapestry of characters. He also manages to bring together snugly the divergent plot lines and different thematic threads by novel's end." Tom Snyders, writing for Straight.com, further added about Gaston: "His greatest strengths are his compassionate portrayal of inner psychologies that never feel forced or fictional, and his seamless balance of plot line with occasional poetic line." In Publishers Weekly, a critic concluded that the author "is that rare writer who can peel back the deepest fears of Nature" to reveal its "imperfect beauty."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 15, 2001, John Green, review of The Good Body, p. 1116.
Books in Canada, December, 1989, George Payerle, review of Deep Cove Stories, p. 33; May, 1990, Gary Draper, review of Tall Lives, p. 49; March, 1992, Nancy Bauer, "Ties to the Earth," pp. 25-27; December, 1993, Mary Frances Hill, "Going with the Flow," review of North of Jesus' Beans, pp. 46-47; April, 1994, Jack Batten, "Sex, Lies, and Film Stock," review of The Cameraman, pp. 38-39; October, 1995, Scott Ellis, "Plain Speaking," review of Inviting Blindness, pp. 25-27.
Books in Review, winter, 1991, Margaret Doyle, review of Deep Cove Stories, pp. 248-249.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1995, James Deahl, review of Inviting Blindness, pp. 212-213.
Canadian Forum, December, 1996, Don McGregor, "Man with Tattoo," pp. 45-47.
Canadian Literature, winter, 1991, review of Tall Lives, pp. 217-218; spring, 1996, review of North of Jesus' Beans, pp. 144-146; spring, 1998, David Leahy, review of Bella Combe Journal, pp. 129-131.
Canadian Materials, September, 1994, Katheryn Broughton, review of The Cameraman, pp. 116-117.
Dalhousie Review, winter, 1991, H.R. Percy, review of Tall Lives, pp. 554-556.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 20, 2002, review of Mount Appetite; September 18, 2004, Ray Robertson, "Back to the Garden," review of Sointula, p. D16; December 24, 2004, Kenneth J. Harvey, "New Acquaintances—and Auld," review of Sointula, p. D3; September 3, 2005, H.J. Kirchhoff, "Paperbacks," review of Sointula, p. D13.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2005, review of Mount Appetite, p. 248; December 1, 2005, review of Sointula, p. 1245.
Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2001, review of The Good Body, p. 67; February 7, 2005, review of Mount Appetite, p. 39; February 6, 2006, review of Sointula, p. 45.
Quill & Quire, December, 1993, Scott Anderson, review of North of Jesus' Beans, pp. 25-26; April, 1994, Michael McGowan, review of The Cameraman, p. 28; October, 1998, Joel Yanofsky, review of Sex Is Red, p. 38; March, 2000, Doug Beardsley, review of The Good Body, p. 61.
January Magazine, http://www.janmag.com/ (March 1, 2005), Cherie Thiessen, "The Runaways."
Straight.com, http://www.straight.com/ (October 14, 2004), Tom Snyders, review of Sointula.