A review by Jill Owens
Addiction. Desire. Appetite. The stories in Bill Gaston's Mount Appetite are concerned with longing and greed, in both negative ways (through money, lots and lots of alcohol, heroin) and positive ones (aesthetics, the honest pursuit of intelligence, love). It seems fashionable lately to write a book of short stories as some variant of a novel, with the same characters and direct narrative threads running throughout. Gaston's newest collection is, refreshingly, the opposite of that trend; each story is a complete and fully imagined rendering of a small and different world. His connections are instead thematic, and his exploration of appetite, strangely, also creates an investigation of the parallel theme of faith. As desperate as these characters may be, they have the feverish conviction of desire. Addiction is twinned with hope for a better tomorrow, a better next minute, even as it's dooming this one.
The characters in the grip of these appetites are remarkably diverse. Gaston breathes life, using precise and personal voices, into a rural healer operating out of an old mobile home; a drunk driver obliviously confident of his ability to impress a policewoman; a female biologist fertilizing fish eggs in a shack in Newfoundland; the child of Malcolm Lowry and a madwoman (who Lowry mistakes for both Death and a cougar); and, in the wonderful title story, a desperate father trying to get his daughter back after he's arrested for growing marijuana and administering it to her as a cure. Each character feels fully formed, unique, and connected to their own contexts; their emotional complexity and resonance makes them memorable long after the story's run its course. (I originally read a copy of this book several months ago; on re-reading, I was delighted to find that the characters were as original and rich as they had remained in my memory.)
Gaston is a master craftsman, and in some ways, despite the sometimes Denis Johnson-esque subject matter, these are very traditional short stories -- they remind us how effective and essential the short story can be. More than anything, they satisfy. The stories' plots and structures are both natural and surprising; as in life, the unexpected often happens, and as it does, it's obvious that it's the only thing that could have happened, after all. His prose is polished enough that his stories can take on a gem-like gleam, which has helped garner him comparisons to fellow Canadian short-story giants Munro and Atwood. There is something more visceral and a bit rougher under the skin of his stories, though, and paradoxically, more optimistic. Gaston seeks the truth in the heart of the disease, and what he finds has something to say to us all.