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Gargoyles

by Bill Gaston
256 pages,
ISBN: 0887847498


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There's Life in the Ol'Boom Yet
by Lyle Neff

Sure, everyone's enjoying the advancing decrepitude of the Baby Boomers. But the start of that demographic's twilight reveals that one of their chief literary innovations, the narrative of the mid-life crisis, is a bit winded. The themes of the postwar babies' literature as they hit their 40s¨the curse of wealth, dewy new spouses, flailing spiritual-not-religious quests¨seem as dated now as the 1980s themselves.
So, to shoot your old dog in the eye and eat a chunk of his carcass, the wish of a troubled suburban dad in one of Bill Gaston's best stories from his new collection, Gargoyles, strikes as a heartening signal in Canadian fiction. Gaston (b. 1953) shows us in this terrific group of tales, his fifth, that there's life in the ol' Boom yet.
Some of the best of the ten stories here serve as a reminder that each of our lives will hinge on one midpoint or another. Gaston's fiction often suggests that the decisions we make at the close of youth might be the most crucial ones of all. God knows¨and so does Gaston¨that these choices can produce unexpected results. And so, at his family's summer cottage, the lonely, unmanned Ray of "Honouring Honey" fires the first gunshot of his life into his old Lab's head, to the predictable annoyance of his wife and the rolling eyes of his surly kids. And then he decides to push his mid-life meltdown just a bit further:

"I want to eat his¨Don't be upset, it's really not that strange, but I think I'm going to eat his heart. If I can find it." He smiles like this last bit is a joke she would want to enjoy with him.
"Ray, not that you're serious, but no."

Oh, Ray's serious; but what he's serious about is the drought of affection and kindness that has turned his family life, as he stumbles into his middle years, into a desert. It's to Gaston's authorial credit that he makes this clear without making it explicit, and that he does so writing from the perspective of Ray's nauseated wife Marta. It's not a pseudo-disease called Mid-Life Crisis that impels Ray to extreme action; it's the nature of life, which happens to clash with his own nature.
The traumas of the nearly-pensioned are far from being the only subject in Gargoyles, and Canadian Boomers don't comprise the majority of his characters. But he depicts his generation very well, especially when viewing them at one remove. He puts Tyler, a teenager who doesn't want to be as smart as he is, in charge of the narrative in "The Night Window", for example:

"It's maybe the main thing he hates about his mother, how everyone she meets has to be informed what an extreme hippy she was. Tyler has several times been with his mother and one of her old friends and they'll see some rainbow-clad extrovert skip past in bare feet with bubbles drifting from her dreadlocks or something, and Tyler will snort, and the friend will say, Well, you should have seen your mother back then. At this his mother laughs and revels as if the sun is on her face."

No prizes for guessing that Tyler's mum is now possessed of a secure government job, along with a smugness her bright son, despite his devotion to her, needs frantically to escape. (This familial tension between the granola generation and their mortified kids is a surprisingly rare theme in recent Canuck fiction; perhaps only Doug Coupland and Katrina Onstad have delved into it to any extent.)
Like most of Gaston's characters, Tyler's mother isn't all that extraordinary. She's neither very rich nor very poor, suffers from no spectacular pathologies and, whatever her ideals, the world has changed her much more than she has changed it. Boomer or not, Gaston's people are usually subject to the same generational and social pressures as any other Canadian. If their deeds and responses sometimes seem bizarre, this is because they are closely observed individuals, and not demographic archetypes or 'typical people' at all. Mid-life, in Gaston's view, is like adolescence and senescence, a force everyone is subject to, but as his tales humanely underscore, it's one's personality, not age and society, which ultimately determines the direction of one's life.

Gargoyles is an insightful book, certainly, in its treatment of the intermission between youth and maturity. "Forms in Winter", "Point No Point", and especially the lovely "The Gods Take Off Their Shirts" join "Honey" and "Night Window" as stories which might aid in salvaging fortysomethingness from the dustbin of literature.
There's a vividness to the elderly characters of "The Walk" and "Gargoyles" too; the protagonist of the latter story, a septuagenarian architect who suffers either from Alzheimer's or late-onset idealism, is particularly memorable. Meanwhile, childhood in these stories is given its due. The depiction of Tyler in "Night Window" is as cleansed of sentimentality and cynicism as the portrayal of pubescent thuggery in "The Green House". Gaston demonstrates at least one advantage of literary Boomerism, then; this is a cohort which neither misrepresents the compromising superabundance of youthful emotion, nor shies away from the approaching deprivations old age.
This sense of "Life Passages" (as certain Boom writers¨less perceptive and more fashionable than Gaston¨might term it) is clearly chief among the author's concerns in these stories. The titular gargoyles¨fetishistic demon-statues ugly enough to guard one's home or establishment against evil¨would seem to have thematic import in only a couple of pieces here beyond the title story, and even then it's a stretch.
The gargoyle shtick is a minor head-scratcher. In this collection, Gaston doesn't introduce many themes that pit the domestic sphere against the public one; nor does he overtly engage with superstition or religion. He doesn't really need to; he covers a lot of literary ground just by investigating how people age while remaining, miraculously, themselves. Apparently, Gaston sketched a little demon to accompany each piece in the book as he wrote it. Thank God no one at Anansi proposed to publish these cartoons (I think of the John Lennon doodles the singer's ghoulish estate flung at the world, and shudder.)
In a few sections where Gargoyles departs from its intrinsically Boomeresque series of themes¨boys learning to be men, the middle-aged running in fear of advancing age, and so on¨the results are mixed. "Freedom", a story that's patently atypical of Gaston, in which a sort-of Frenchman and his beanbag chair stagger disastrously around Montana, gestures at some postmodern notions about migration, alienation, and identity. But the protagonist seems to suffer, finally, only from a severe case of stupidity, and the story settles into an acceptably humane bit of tragicomedy. That's good; Gaston's no Houellebecq, nor was he meant to be.
By contrast, the insider knowledge of "A Work-in-Progress", an extended gag about peevish status-jostling among unread writers and their academic counterparts, merely irritates. And a dialogue-only piece about a writer and his troublesome brother, "The Beast Waters His Garden of a Summer's Eve", has a point or two to make about family and art, but essentially falls flat. It's not that a reader wants Gaston, clearly a writer of genuine intellectual curiosity, to confine himself always within a certain range of subject matter and plot; it's just that some of his experimentation in Gargoyles fails, as some experiments must.
It should be mentioned that where Gargoyles gets a bit spotty, it's never due to amateurishness or laziness; indeed, since first being published in the late '80s, Gaston has evolved a prose style of understated beauty, which is also as Canadian as a slapshot from the point. As the grief-stricken father of "Forms in Winter" notes:
"His wife, Andy's mother, never did join him here. They split rather quickly after Andy died. He learned this wasn't uncommon. It does feel quite wrong to stay together, as if the death issued from the union itself. Indeed everything felt wrong, as wrong as things can feel wrong, and their marriage got blown apart like two dry leaves . . . "

This is a father whose mid-life crisis is a real emotional emergency, as most are, whatever one might say about the alleged insularity and self-involvement of the Baby Boom generation, whose crises are winding down. Time and time again in Gargoyles, Bill Gaston hits the mark, and outlines the fervent humanity of each individual soul. Shaped and deformed though we may be by the times we're born into, this fine book shows that it's not demographics that make us. ˛

Lyle Neff is a Canadian poet, whose most recent book was Bizarre Winery Tragedy (Anvil, 2005). He lives in Vancouver with his wife and sons.

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