THIS COULD be subtitled "Me Best and Worst of Bill Gaston." Reading the first, story, "The Forest Path to Malcolm's," I wondered if Ron Smith of Oolichan had gone off his head. We have the first-person style of a character named Lava, who claims first that he is Malcolm Lowry's bastard son and second that the cougar of Lowry's story "The Forest Path to the Spring" was in fact his mother; Lava being the result of the drunken coupling of writer and cougar-woman. Gaston's story is a strident blatter of "loathing for imagination, and writers, and fiction, and drink." "This is not fiction," Lava intones. "I have a distrust, a fear, a hatred of fiction." A provocative statement. Lava, given no other name, does not reappear in these "linked" stories under that volcanic cognomen, but I was led to hope that he might be the psychotic Aikman who nails boards to his feet about 140 pages later, to walk off into the "changeless solar purple" of the firmament. Clearly, Deep Cove Stories can make the reader highly cantankerous. Lava's provocative statement hangs like a Damoclean challenge over the first half of the book, the outcome potentially lethal either to the reader's comfortable views or to the stories themselves. Gaston's most engaging character, a blind woman named Jhana Betts, declares "Imagination is impotent." 'Me author seems to agree, at least inasmuch as Jhana's insights triumph over the cynical materialism of Frank, the story's point-of-view character, who is going around trying to seduce women by pretending to be blind (as a project for an experimental psychology course!).
This story, "Me Blind Do It Better in the Dark," left me feeling that Ron Smith had definitely gone off his nut. Too often Gaston writes like an upper-year writing student -interesting moments of character and line in a methodical dross of expository prose bubbled with huge banalities. I wanted to take him to task for his putative condemnation of imagination when it is clear that he is either highly imaginative or possessed of an incredible life, which he is simply recording.
That general state of affairs persisted in my reading of the stories until I hit "The Bronze Miracle," about halfway through. It's a suspense tale about a 10-year-old boy and a young male clerk in a 7-11 store. I tried to object. I tried to come up with angles. (This character Jim Mayer reminds me of Frank in "The Blind." Gaston's at his best doing cynical-rebel types. Make a nasty comparison with James Dean, who died before he had to live up to his own image.) It didn't work. I got hooked. I stayed hooked through a climax I could quibble with but won't and a denouement that is sheer poetry of pattern and perception. The rest of the book I read with an open mind that hadn't been plugged up with Lava.
There are problems. Why drag Deep Cove into stories in which it has no place other than to "link," in the most artificial manner, with the book? Why allow laboured images and diction when the prose, at its best in the last story, "Me Horton Syndrome," can do anything from the clear and economical to the staccato and lyrical? Why have significant details, such as Frank's pipe-smoking, pop out only when they're needed for a turn in plot? Why subject a character as compelling and evocative as Jhana Betts to the cliche of sex with the shaman-spirit-incarnate of the Coast? Or the even more compefling character of Bob Horton to a cliched '60s-revival .encounter with ancient Egyptian drug mysticism?
But I think most of the problems, for me, would have been resolved by opening the book with "Me Bronze Miracle," shuffling the rest to bury "The Forest Path" in the middle, where we might be more ready for it, or at least more willing to tolerate it, and moving some of the strength of Horton closer to the front. Maybe even his Egyptian escapade. If I'm simply reading a book of short stories, rather than reviewing it, I usually start in the middle, perhaps at the end. Perhaps my moralistic sense of fairness in this case served the book badly.