Gaston, Bill. Just Let Me Look at You. Penguin Random House, Toronto, 2018. F;8/19.
(There could be plot-spoilers in this review.)
I found this memoir profoundly affecting. Some of that is familiarity – the setting is the Canadian West Coast and the author-protagonist writes so transparently it’s as if I were beside him in his boat. But vital personal content, from a male point of view (rare if not frowned on these days), flows heartfelt and clear. So strong is the introspective tide that the overvalued popular idea (in this case childhood abandonment and sexual abuse) lying secret at the center didn’t bother me as it might have reading something less convincing.
Gaston takes on fatherhood, childhood, addiction to alcohol, marriage and more, and the specifics of his life with his dad don’t obscure his message because it’s universal: really difficult truth has to be faced. He takes off in his boat to return to a place where he and his father fished for years, and the two voyages – geographical and personal – are parallel without being tidily lined up.
Gaston senior is an appalling alcoholic who manages to become a retail executive, and appears through Bill’s early years as a drunken frat-boy jock who never tells the truth. Mostly through fishing (non-anglers – usually women – say there’s too much of that here. I haven’t done much serious fishing and still found the setting somehow familiar) Gaston gradually figures out that his dad accomplished much much more as a father than his son had any idea about until long after he had his own boys.
The older Gaston was lost in his addiction. One night when the dad was relatively sober he said, “I bet you haven’t seen your old man drunk before!” and Bill realizes his father is so detatched in his drinking he was trying to make out that this was a true statement. He wasn’t joking or being ironic.
I (now) see his lying is something he learned to do… to survive… If I asked him even a simple question… his eyes first flashed wariness of the question, and then a calculation of what the best, not the actual, answer might be. He often said, “Whaddya mean?” … It was never “I don’t know.”
Like his father’s fearing the truth, Bill is also afraid. With decades of boating experience behind him he still hates the prospect of rough seas as he crosses open water. He approaches in his boat and then crosses by land to watch the Skookumchuck narrows’ 30-km-per-hour rapids (in which it happens my wife’s brother was tragically killed many years ago as a teenager in a canoe). And in his boat Bill’s apprehension of danger coincides with a deadly serious insight about himself and fatherhood:
How close can you get? How intimate? It goes both ways, of course. From what I can gather sometimes it’s the dad who won’t, or can’t, break through, and sometimes it’s the child. Usually it’s an awkward mix of both. Maybe sometimes two people simply and literally can’t see eye to eye… (they) just weren’t built to get close… Or even get along.
On top of that terrible lottery of genetics Gaston senior was secretly struggling with his own alcohol-soaked father who abandoned him. Any boy (or girl) who knows the irreplaceable security of a parent’s love, however distant by nature and twisted by their own nurture that dad or mum is, will feel Bill’s epiphany: his dad’s ridiculous posturing is foolishly meant to hide his dependence but also to prevent the abandonment that broke his heart from doing the same to his own boy. Love can find a way past awful obstacles to deliver its terrible lifesaving message.
Gaston is a humorous self-effacing writer with several Canadian short-lists to his name. There’s certainly no hint of crowing over his semi-professional ice hockey and other non-literary accomplishments. Great fiction shows simple things set down so they pull us to an emotional understanding. This story does just that.