Bill Gaston knows his way around the world of the short story. Over the course of five previous collections, the Victoria-based author has garnered plenty of acclaim and several national award nominations, and he now spends his days as chair of the University of Victoria’s writing department, where student-penned stories multiply like rabbits. Perhaps that’s why his sixth collection, Juliet Was a Surprise, opens with something of a metafictional flourish, showcasing not just Gaston the veteran writer but also Gaston the professor.
House Clowns is about a man who shows up at his rented waterfront cabin only to discover a cheery young couple already inside, who claim that it must have been double-booked. Gaston’s narrator has no proof either way, and agrees to share with them. But he suspects that the couple is lying through their teeth, and proceeds to analyze their every move as if it’s an elaborate façade – as if they are secretly the kind of stock villains one finds in bad short stories. From here, Gaston uses his narrator’s cumulative paranoia as a means of identifying and ridiculing the obvious tropes of the form. When the narrator discovers a pistol full of blanks in the couple’s suitcase, he recognizes it as almost too good to be true: “a compact portrait of characters at home in the bad life.” Later, when the woman coquettishly asks him to put sunscreen on her back, the narrator declines, pleased with himself for “interrupt[ing] the momentum at what was very likely an important juncture.” These are the kinds of easy patterns that lesser writers fall into all the time. Gaston, however, is savvy enough to point them out even as he skips right past.
Opening a collection this way is a thrill. But it has its risks, too. Close on the heels of House Clowns is Any Forest Seen from Orbit, which relies on another over-familiar arc, only now we’re asked to take it completely seriously. Here we have an arborist who suffers a crisis of professional faith when he’s hired to cut down a beautiful, 70-foot deodara cedar unnecessarily. Luckily, there’s Juliet, the housewife who gives the collection its title, “sexy as sexy gets,” to ease the pain by sleeping with him under her husband’s nose. Yet the narrator is, by his own admission, average looking, not to mention grubby, awkward, a virgin, and, as we will see, quick to anger. Such a far-fetched story is difficult to stomach at the best of times; following the deconstructionist wink of House Clowns, it’s all but impossible.
More often, however, the stories in Juliet Was a Surprise overlap in more intriguing ways, many of which have to do with sex. The figure of the Frustrated Male Virgin shows up in several incarnations, from the arborist in Any Forest to the tongue-tied linguistics student in Petterick to the man who fires off entries by the dozen to a bad-on-purpose writing contest in At Work in the Fields of the Bulwer-Lytton. And even when sex occurs, Gaston is quick to remind us that it causes at least as many problems as it solves. Black Roses Bloom features a woman who discovers that her orgasms are giving her minor strokes, and no amount of fooling around during a snorkeling expedition can salvage the nose-diving relationship at the heart of To Mexico. (The latter also invokes Malcolm Lowry, which ties it all the way back to Gaston’s first collection, 1989’s Deep Cove Stories, about the out-of-the-way neighbourhood in North Vancouver where Lowry squatted in a shack on the beach while writing Under the Volcano, and where Gaston grew up.)
Throughout, Gaston’s writing is confident and controlled, and it’s no surprise to learn – judging from their near-uniform length as much as anything else – that pretty well every story in here previously appeared in a literary journal. His language can knock you sideways, too, as with this delightful description of an uncle glued to a football game on TV: “Ray was thin, tanned, focused, a beam of American hotdog.”
Towards the end of Any Forest Seen from Orbit, in an attempt to scare off a rival arborist, Gaston’s narrator tells him the deodara tree has been spiked. This, the narrator confides to us, is when old-growth activists “drive hidden nails randomly into a random tree. A man wielding a chainsaw can be killed. Spiking just a few trees and making it known can save whole forests.” At their best, Gaston’s stories are the author’s way of spiking the demure forest of CanLit, giving readers familiar-looking exteriors, with surprising, potentially explosive results hiding within.
Michael Hingston, books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes, is also a Deep Cove ex-pat.