Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

The Beauty of Bill Gaston's Beasts

We are all gargoyles

I have maggots. Well, my balcony has maggots. Late in September, they set up shop in one of those oversized, orange garbage bags I left out for a few days.  Fine, weeks. The point is that maggots have taken over my balcony, and I've stopped going out there in fear of those things I had originally mistaken for sticky rice.

And then last night happened. I didn't sleep well-a combination of coffee and Drunk Girl.  Drunk Girl had apparently mistaken my neighbourhood for a gutter, and was sitting outside yelling, "Hey Sexies!" (All the Sexies in my neighbourhood had gone to bed.) "I'm not wearing any underwear," she warbled. "Twenty bucks and I'll throw in my virginityyy." Suddenly I thought to myself: two birds; one stone. I threw open the balcony door, grabbed the garbage bag and chucked it over the railing. The maggots missed Drunk Girl by a hair's breadth. "What the fuck?" I was quite pleased. I had reclaimed my balcony and expelled an intruder in one lob ball. I looked down onto the street with a monstrous grin and realized that I was a gargoyle.

Bill Gaston's Gargoyles is a collection of short stories about people who take chances. Some of his characters have good intentions (In "Honouring Honey," Ray kills his dying dog and decides to eat its heart). Others are less benevolent (the young narrator in "The Green House" terrorizes his new neighbours by hiding a rotting squirrel and a dollar bill in their barbeque). Others still are just looking for fun (In "The Beast Waters his Garden of a Summer's Eve," Phil says: "You'd think that seeing their lawyer vice-president father fooling around with a Hitler moustache, their Jewish vice-president father, you'd figure they'd, you know, I don't know-laugh.").

Normally, I'm a bit turned off by short stories, frustrated by their lack of narrative trajectory. (The same applies to those Parker Posey Pepsi commercials; I want them to keep going.)  Gargoyles, however, does keep going.  The characters change, but the story remains constant. Gaston creates in his gargoyles a group of people struggling to protect their homes, even when they're homeless.   

In "Forms in Winter," Gaston forgoes metaphor to create a real gargoyle. The narrator, a grieving father, laments the loss of his son who died while living on the streets. Gaston writes: "One worker's job was made all the more bleak when he pulled a sheet of form away and there near the bottom, at the height of the worker's knees, instead of smooth new cement was fabric and flesh. Enough of Andy's face was showing." As if to atone for his sins as a negligent father, the narrator moves into the building that killed his son. Heavy-handed? Maybe. It's also affecting in a way that characterizes the entire collection. 

Gaston's prose is simple and clear, like the juice that runs from a well-cooked turkey.  Some stories, however, are a little overcooked.  In "The Kite Trick," for example, children bury their British uncle alive in sand, while playing a game called "Save the Queen." The story's ending seems inevitable from the start and there seems to be no point to it beyond the shock value.

The strongest of Gaston's stories is "Point No Point." Here, he manages to interpret the Fall without resorting to hackneyed imagery. Vacationing at EdenTide resort, Neil McCrae is forced to leave when the hotel management finds out that he's been poaching mussels from the beach: "Andrew jabs his finger and hisses, way too loud, that the brochure explains clearly, as does the laminated card on the back of the bathroom door, that no harvesting of shellfish is allowed on the property." Neil eats from the rock garden. Of Eden. Before Neil and his family pack up, however, he leaves behind a lasting requiem for innocence lost. On the rock face, in glossy, orange lettering, Neil writes, "M-U-S-C-L-E-S," unsure of the correct spelling of the food on which he feasted. Neil doesn't even get what his mistake was.  He's just not fit for the perfect place and nor does he want to live there.  The McCraes, are happy with their fallibility.  The world is a rock shore that offers up delicious mussels, which they are simply content to eat because they are famished.

The Fearsome Particles is brilliant. I picked the novel up because I'm drawn to disjointed narratives that bring together different perspectives.  Gargoyles, however, takes these multiple perspectives and pushes them to their logical ends. The Fearsome Particles is about a family, whereas Gargoyles is about humanity.  Gaston infuses each of his stories with cracks and stains and the detritus of life. His stories smell, they sweat, and most importantly, they breathe deeply while taking account of the world around them. Gargoyles is unrelentingly tragic, but it's nothing if not a validation of our world and its monsters.

*    *    *

So I've made it to Day Two of my literary bender. My eyes feel a little fuzzy, but I have to stop raving and get back to reading. Next, De Niro's Game