FOR MOST OF his nearly 40 years, Bill Gaston has been on the move constantly. During a recent panel discussion on New Brunswick writing, he said wistfully, "I cloth have a home - that makes me sound like a pathetic orphan -so I value the mutual support I've found here in Fredericton. I feel as if I have been adopted." Gaston was born in Winnipeg, spent his adolescent and post-adolescent years in the Deep Cove, British Columbia where many of his stories are set, and in between lived in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and for a year in France. More recently, he spent three years in Halifax teaching at St. Mary's University, and for the last year and a half has been writer in residence at the University of New Brunswick.
With all these moves, he has had to give up many friends, and perhaps that is why one overriding theme in his fiction is the value of friendship. In one of the Deep Cove Stories (Oolichan, 1989), 'A Tibetan at Al's House," the protagonist realizes that he has forgotten to sacrifice something during the Buddhist ritual he is attending. "Then he knew. Yes! Ha! He'd sacrifice ... his friends" But the Tibetan lama reads his mind and says,
... must celebrate with our friends! ... we must swim the great sea ... for it is not possible ... without our friends. We are each of us so pathetic in the world. And we are each of us so noble. And, so, we need the criticism of our friends...
Gaston's novel and stories celebrate a lost world of mate friendship, of "back-slapping teammates." Gaston himself was a hockey player, good enough to play junior A when he was 15, to play professional hockey in Europe, and then to be scouted and invited to NHL camps. He looks back to those days on hockey rinks and in the bars among his buddies with a nostalgic sense of loss. "People have such trouble breaking through the barriers, of having real communion. When you do break through, it's so great," he says. "I cherish the good times. For me these moments are a model for how people could be." With his hockey friends, "you don't even have to talk to each other to have communion." He dismisses the "dumb jock" stereotype as untrue. "I loved their company"
But he did leave all that. "I quit. It was the violent era of hockey, the Philadelphia Flyers era. As a defenceman, I was supposed to be a fighter, and I wasn't."
Although a hockey team gave him instant friends, his older brother, Bob, became his best friend - "sometimes my only friend. " Moving, they often had to be "against the world together." They played on the same teams, and Bob became the audience for his humour. "He thinks I'm funnier when I'm just
hanging around - he thinks in writing is too constipated." While an exploration of male friendship occurs in many of Gaston's short stories, his deep empathy with his brother was the germ of his novel, Tall Lives (Macmillan, 1990). Romantic love, he says, has been done to death. He wanted to examine the
strongest bond between people, the blood bond with one's sibling. He decided to exaggerate that bond by making the two characters in Tall Lives, Frank and Del, twins, and then he "super-exaggerated" that bond by making them Siamese twins, joined at the left big toe, and sawn apart at birth by their father.
The twins' perfect communion can he without words, across miles. At the end of the novel, one of them stumbles and their bare left feet join together at the toe:
At first there was nothing, or rather a kind of inverse force, like a beach wave receding, but then the jolt that entered them, starting at the toe and traveling up the spine, was not only painful but tantalizingly so, as orgasm can be.
Del's wife, Mary, confesses, I've been jealous from day one. It's hard to admit this, but it's Frank. You know, for years I've had the feeling that Del sits around all day worrying, thinking, yearning about Frank."
In Gaston's fiction, friendship and brotherly love are two of the mysteries of life. All that Frank and Del's parents know is that twins were mysterious." And Fraser, a complex, ambiguous mentally handicapped character in Tall Lives, has a "comprehension of friendship [that] remained a mystery to Del."
In fact, to Bill Gaston, life in general is mysterious and complicated. The twins' father says to them in a drunken ramble, "Fellas, it's so goddamned complicated, you can't be an absolutis' anymore." The dark twin, Frank, vandalizes a house: "It was a complicated crime, people in this quiet community agreed." And the good twin, Del, thinks, "this tangled, lousy life - as his brother Frank described it - was like living inside a vast paper bag filled with spiders and broken glass."
Complication, mystery, the exotic, excess, hang over Gaston's work. Reviewer after reviewer notes the excess: "the writer takes big risks," "mythic proportion," "heroic power." His characters are often extreme - a strange idiot savant, a blind nymphomaniac, a grossly obese philosopher; they are either too tall, orphaned, fatherless, motherless, psychic, or homeless, and altogether larger than life. And yet Gaston says that he cherishes the ordinary, wants to celebrate it. This paradox also informs the religion of Buddhism, and Gaston is a follower of Tibetan Buddhism.
"The Tibetan at Al's House" is the only story that explicitly makes use of Buddhism, but Buddhist philosophy is always lurking in Gaston's fiction, as it is in his life. "No one knows what is going on in life," he says. "No one knows what being alive means. But we pretend we do -with our self-importance."
Fifteen years ago, he and a friend were searching for a religion that had a definite practice, specific guidelines for approaching reality. The vagueness of Western religions didn't satisfy him. In 1978 Chogyam Trungpa came to Vancouver to lecture, and Gaston became a believer. His friend was convinced by another set of guidelines, and ended up in a Gurdjieff compound in California.
Gaston's highly developed sense of the absurd gives a depth and richness to his innate comic genius. "The spirituality I practise isn't one of those brown-rice affairs where everyone smiles like the pamphleteers in an airport. There's no vacancy, no 'love and light.' I believe in the Tantric tradition of slapping people awake - clumsy as my attempts may be, I want to jostle and jar in my fiction." He hopes the overall intention is good-hearted. But within that good intention he likes to be Outrageous, likes to remind people of their bodily functions, their tie to the earth. His Buddhism feeds his writing, has made him believe more in the spontaneous, made his characters unpredictable, and left him no respect for the status quo. His practice of Buddhism also makes him determined to avoid the degraded or the violent.
A Buddhist understanding of the value of the mundane informs his writing. At the end of the last of the Deep Cove stories, "The Horton Syndrome," Horton sees through all forms of entertainment - strange places, loud personalities, personal ornaments - and accepts completely not only the ordinary, but also the Ordinary with a capital 0. Only then can magic take place. Relishing the ordinary is part of the acceptance of boredom, a Buddhist goal:
I saw in his eyes such a vigorous but humble energy; I saw
there the bravery to rest in a beige state, the bravery to resist
twisting away from horrifying boredom, the bravery to cut
the bondage of entertainment, the bravery of a writer to tinish a book
on an ordinary note, the bravery to let personality fall and be set aside
like a Christmas treetop angel.
A COMIC WRITER, Gaston says, must be sad, despairing, because
without sadness, humour doesn't happen. It has to come as relief--comic relief. Laughter is a nervous spasm of that relief
He never draws his characters from life- everything is made up.
"I never lack imagination. Stuff flies out of my head. I have to pick and choose and wade through the stuff." He speaks almost as if he has nothing to do with this imagination. On the other hand, he thinks "the muse" is a big romantic lie. When he writes, he sits down and makes himself write - as if the process of writing isn't worthy of hesitation, which is also a Buddhist tenet. "I get a character, and they start yapping. It's like listening to somebody talk."
His reading is eclectic. He reads a lot of non-fiction, especially Vajarana Buddhist texts - of which there are hundreds. He likes the fiction of Martin Arms, Barry Hannah, and Thomas McGuane. A new enthusiasm is Joan Chase - her The Evening Wolves and In the Reign of the Queen ofPersia.
Four writers who influenced him in the past are "the four Johns"
Fowles, LeCarre, Irving, Gardner. They all share what Gaston calls "popular density." They appeal on an entertainment and plot level -they can tell a story - but their work is also good literature. The trick is to balance the two elements.
Another, more oblique influence is Malcolm Lowry. The first story in Deep Cove Stories imagines a young man whose illegitimate father might be Lowry. In addition to the fishermen, squatters, eccentrics, closet geniuses, and dangerous greasy types in the area, the real Deep Cove also had Malcolm Lowry, a man everyone knew about as an eccentric, even as a writer, but who wasn't then famous. Gaston's MA thesis at the University of British Columbia was on Lowry's projected magnum opus, "The Voyage that Never Ends"
Gaston is grateful to the Maritimes. His two years as writer in residence at UNB have been "completely tremendous." He is especially happy that UNB asks little-known, emerging writers to hold this position, and hopes the luck associated with the position will hold - four of the last five UNB writers in residence have either won or been short-listed for the Governor General's Award. During his residency, Gaston has been productive: a collection of short stories, a novel, and a play have resulted.
The play, The Horton Syndrome, is now being workshopped at Theatre New Brunswick. "I've stolen lots of the elements, including the name, and lots of the spirit of the Horton stories in Deep Cove Stories, but the main character isn't the same Horton." He loved writing the play. "It was exhilarating beyond belief, because basically I'm a blabbermind. It came incredibly fast - close to automatic writing."
Gaston's fiction has been evolving during the last two years. He is beginning to think that devices such as magic realism and what he calls "artful exaggeration" are a bit cheap. "I'm challenging myself with realism " His latest fiction is quieter, exploring the magic of the mundane. "But I dot* know if I'm skilled enough. I can write comedy -funny or quirky. I seem to be able to do that successfully, almost without effort. Now I'd like to he entertaining without being so slapstick"
One critic called Tall lives "misogynist" Gaston was flabbergasted; his female friends either laughed or were angry. In fact Del's wife, Mary, is one of the most complex characters in the novel. If its women are stereotypes they are, like the men, "larger than life" stereotypes. Gaston finds himself drawn to wise women - to wise people in general, but to women especially because "they are more alluring, more exotic, to a man"
In the last year he has discovered what a range of response his work elicits. "I've learned that what I intended wasn't necessarily read that way." When his first book, Deep Cove Stories, came out, a Calgary review called the first story "the best story, in English, in memory.'' Two days later Gaston read the Books in Canada review, which referred to the same story and then questioned the sanity of the publisher for having published the book.
Gaston thinks he has exorcised Deep Cove Stories and its characters from his fiction. The fictional world he is inhabiting now includes the Canadian film industry milieu and Washington, D.C., as well as Fredericton. The main character is a "grown-up, enigmatic Horton," who seems to be as close to Gaston's own persona as his characters ever get; another of the main characters in the novel is a little girl.
Gaston's present worries centre around how to make a living. He has two small children and another one is on the way. He feels he has paid his dues - writing has been the one serious focus (other than Buddhism) of his life for 15 years. One year he lived as a hermit in a rented cabin - no phone, no bathroom and wrote. He has seven manuscripts, but only two have been published. His first novel, "The Bella Combe Journal," was twice a finalist in the Seal first novel contest, but it is still not in print. Editors have written him that the novel deserves to be published, but a series of mishaps - publishers folding, etc. - has prevented this. A movie deal for Tall Lives also fell through at the last minute. He has almost quit writing a number of times, and yet he has had enough positive feedback to keep going forward.
Macmillan is going to publish his second novel, The Cameraman, and Oolichan will publish a collection of poetry, Inviting Blindness. His play is now making the rounds of artistic directors, and another collection of stories, North of Jesus' Beans, is in the hands of an interested publisher.
Contemplating another move, Gaston reflects on the Maritimes. "I like the corny 'Leave It to Beaver' quality here. Traditional values aren't talked about, but they are actually performed. Large families look after each other, for example. And kids are an integral part of life, not just yuppie accessories. On the West Coast, people seem abstract. Here they are earthy and practical, with an old-fashioned genuineness. Most writers complain if they are labelled regional, but I crave that. I think the lack of place has hurt me"
Soon it will be time for Gaston and his family to migrate again, and again he will feel the rootlessness, the loss of home, the loss of friends. Now it's not his brother Bob who will guarantee that he has a best friend, but his wife, Dede. Although Gaston is applying for teaching jobs in B.C. and to graduate schools in the United States, he is leaving the decision as to where he will alight in the hands of the gods, who have so far been kind.