Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood
By Bill Gaston. Hamish Hamilton, 288 pp, softcover
With his new book, Victoria writer Bill Gaston shifts away from his much-lauded fiction (his last novel, The World, was awarded the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize) to a work of very personal nonfiction. While Just Let Me Look at You isn’t Gaston’s first foray into memoir, it feels like the work of a lifetime.
Just Let Me Look at You begins with Gaston, cresting 60 years old, setting forth on a solo boat trip, “thirty years in the making”, from Gabriola Island to Egmont, a tiny community on Sechelt Inlet. It’s not exactly an endurance feat—just “eighty miles across the Salish Sea and up a remote inlet”—but the journey is significant. Egmont is “where my father and I learned to mooch for salmon together,” Gaston writes. “It’s where I came of age, and he slid downhill, and it’s where we grew apart.”
Framed around Gaston’s often hilarious boat trip (his boat is “a piece of junk”, and Gaston is a tentative, fair-weather captain), Just Let Me Look at You is a clear-eyed, unsentimental—though clearly deeply felt—examination of Gaston’s relationship with his father. A veteran who joined the American navy in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, his father was a manager at Sears who climbed the corporate ladder while dragging his family from city to city, eventually settling in Vancouver. He was also a boisterous drunk eventually claimed by alcoholism, though not before his relationship with the bottle destroyed his relationship with his son.
But Gaston and his father could always find safe ground fishing together, and Gaston’s trip to Egmont is an attempt to reconcile not only his feelings on the man he knew, but the secrets he only discovered in the wake of his father’s death, and his own growing self-awareness and understanding of the older man as he himself ages.
Just Let Me Look at You is a beautiful book, evocative and thoughtful, as rooted in the waters and history of the West Coast as it is in the human relationships at its core. Yes, there’s a lot of fishing, but Just Let Me Look at You is about fishing in the same way Field of Dreams is about baseball: it’s written with such love and devotion that it will win you over even if (I’m guilty of this) you couldn’t care less about the activity. And like the film, just when you think you have it figured out, the book sneaks up on you and breaks your goddamn heart.