29 September 2007

Mount Appetite, by Bill Gaston

Raincoast Books, Vancouver BC, 2002. 221 pages. ISBN 1-55192-451-X.

This is a collection of short stories. Bill Gaston is a writer who lives in British Columbia. He teaches at the University of Victoria. I liked this book from the first few words. His prose is powerful, rhythmic, and effective without being excessive -- he sneaks up on you and clobbers you with a line.

"But when he was tired, like now, he felt closer to the shabby ground. He could feel in his bones how spring still hadn't come. He could smell mildew in the grey rug, which had to be fifteen years old. The floor of this old mobile creaked almost anywhere you put a foot down and the room he worked in was damn ridiculous... So much needed to be better."
--From "Where it Comes From, Where it Goes" page 14.
Desire is the source of all suffering, Gaston reminds me several times in these pages.

"Where it Comes From, Where it Goes."

What is the source, what is the justification, for a man to have the gift of healing? Why did he receive the gift, and what makes it keep working?

"The Angel's Share."

A mysteriously indigent woman traveling by kayak visits a campground group of urban folks on holiday sitting around a fire, drinking and talking.

"The Alcoholist."

A portrait of an intensely sensitive man with a talent for spirits.

"Driving Under the Influence."

A drunk driver finds himself attracted to a female police officer at a roadblock. He is charming, she lets him go. But he's tempted to go back and see her again, that very evening.

"Comedian Tire."

Two brothers who have not been particularly close are drawn together as the elder prematurely nears the end of his life. The younger has a complicated young-family life including a van that isn't running right and a child (and, perhaps, wife) with the flu. Somehow against his better judgement, he takes his van to "the red garage," a less-than-reputable retail auto repair chain store. The end of this story has a similar feeling to the end of "The Bronze Miracle," later in the book. The characters are, through the events in these stories, somehow released from their "normal" striving and find themselves weightless -- perhaps enlightened.

"The Little Drug Addict That Could."

Jack is a government bureaucrat who deals with fisheries. Tyson is his nephew, a problem child now no longer a child who's never been good at keeping a job. He comes to Jack with a surprising request for help resulting in an outcome worthy of an O. Henry story.

"The Hangover."

Three brothers go on a fishing trip. Keith, the "stuffy cellist," wary of their careless, macho behavior, is reluctant to go, but resigns himself to the outing. Horrified by the amount of beer and whiskey they've loaded into this "iffy tin boat," he protects his hands under his life jacket, and dreads the coming drinking and inevitable hangover. He's the only one wearing a life jacket, Phil and Raymond are using theirs for seat cushions.

In this unlikely story of modern Canadian siblings working vainly in middle age to frolic as youth, to change their brother, make him more ordinary; in this story's nine pages are sufficient hints to infer their three lives to date, as well as what is to come.

"He could remember his father once joking -- some joke -- that in a past life someone must have done something horrible to his hands."

"A Forest Path."

Begins with the disclaimer that it is not fiction, and expresses detestation for those who write fiction, for they are writers of lies. Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, and once resident of Dollarton, a part of North Vancouver, BC, is one of such detested weavers of written misinformation, and the subject of the narrator's ire and spite.

As the story continues, we learn that the narrator was a little boy in Dollarton when Lowry lived there. He and his mother both knew Lowry somewhat, and the narrator gives us a new insight into Lowry's short story of the same name as this one.

Gaston more than once in this collection explores a theme of rebirth, reincarnation, the cycle of death and life, including but not limited to the Buddhist perspective. In this story he relates Lowry's fascination with Death, speculates that he had a hatred of life, and leaves us with the impression that perhaps Lowry's spirit continues on.

I knew nothing of Lowry when I read this story. A little research on the 'net was helpful.

Some information about Malcolm Lowry and Under the Volcano.

"Maria's Older Brother."

Tony is a little different, perhaps a little retarded, a child among children his own age. He loves to play baseball with the other kids but he is the absolute last choice for anyone's team, and only gets to play when no one else is available. When his sister dies, he seems to think that perhaps he will get some dispensation from the usual scorn his peers direct at him.

"The Bronze Miracle."

Having graduated from high school, Jim goes to work in a 7-Eleven store by night, and as a landscaper by day, in order to save money for his dream -- his desire -- to buy a large brick house on an Eastern lake. He is visited ten times by The Bronze Miracle, and is changed.

"The Northern Cod."

Ruth Twirling is a British Columbian marine biologist in Newfoundland, working on a project that is apparently trying to find a way to restore the Cod population in the Atlantic in that region. She has left familiar academic circles to work in this remote and unfamiliar place and as the story begins it seems a quirky choice to have made, but as more about her life is revealed we begin to understand from what she is escaping, and for what she strives.

"Mount Appetite."

Felice is taken from her widower father by the Authorities, because he grows pot, and makes cannabis tea to relieve her from the tortures of mental illness. The story is told in a series of emails from the father to a psychiatrist to whom he is compelled (by the Authorities) to go.

The father's rage at what has been done to him and his daughter grows, builds, explodes in a calm fury of sarcasm, mock-patient explanations of how they have been living with Felice's illness since she was born, and how they have never benefited from or desired any help from doctors, or the government.

"...I feel surrounded by galaxies of insane pettiness. Each galaxy (read: government ministry) is spinning in on itself with its mad, mad, black hole in the middle, sucking in all common sense, and decency, and light. A black hole is the absence of a brain and, even more, a heart. The word "ministry" smacks of horror. It harkens back to when government was a religion, a churchy time when "ministry" meant kindness. That it flipped to its soul-sucking opposite is -- well, Orwell predicted it, didn't he?"
--page 194
Felice's disease, simply explained, is that she cannot decide what to do. For this, her father pities her, but also loves her intensely. She wants the perfect answer every time, she cannot stand to make the wrong decision, thus she is mad.

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