Hamish Hamilton, 2018
Reviewed by Zachery Cooper
Bill Gaston, best known for his fiction, writes a transparent and eloquent memoir about the life he shared with his father.
“I’ve been hanging my father’s dirty boxers out on a long clothesline, and it’s only fair that I hang mine out too and expose myself as I’ve exposed him and reveal things about myself that I’m wincingly not proud of.” Bill Gaston’s memoir Just Let Me Look At You calmly sails the reader across the Strait of Georgia, en route for fishing at Egmont, while exploring the stormy, troubled relationship Gaston had with his alcoholic father.
The book is largely about Gaston and his father sharing fishing trips in B.C., complete with fishing jargon like “mooching” that may challenge an inexperienced angler, but reward ardent anglers who will turn page after page while waiting for their casted line to dip below the surface.
“I’ve made drinking sound only dire. And it’s old news that it has ruined countless lives. So then why do many of us do it? Nothing but sincere, George Bernard Shaw called whisky ‘liquid sunshine.’ Benjamin Franklin’s ‘beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy’ is one of my favourites. Humanity’s oral history is rich with such wisdoms about what’s happened since we learned to put yeast and sugar in the same room together and let them have it.”
Gaston spotlights how the disease created a barrier with his father; a barrier Gaston tried admirably to overcome, but it couldn’t be broken. Through the exploration of his father’s past, and yearning for truth, Gaston starts to understand what shaped him into the man he knew. Acoholism is a helix in the Gaston gene pool and makes clear why it’s often called a family disease.
This book isn’t just for fathers and sons, anyone longing to understand the person who raised them will identify with Gaston’s story. This memoir is comparable to Cea Sunrise Person’s North of Normal, but Gaston’s brother and mother are less defined in these roles with him and more so in their relationship with Gaston Sr. They create a crisper profile and better understanding of his father’s character, but more opportunity to see them relate as sibling and parent would have been welcome.
Just Let Me Look at You is not merely a look at the throes of alcoholism, but a well-documented journey up the coast of B.C. that encompasses the breathtaking beauty the province has to offer. Gaston’s lyrical, poetic prose is as perfect for this memoir, and his first, Midnight Hockey, as it is for Giller and Governor General’s Award shortlisted fiction. His most recent novel, The World, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Gaston is the author of seven novels and seven collections of short fiction, as well as a book of poems. He teaches at the University of Victoria.