canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Good Body
by Bill Gaston
Cormorant/Stoddart, 2000

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

Itís Saturday night and, well, thereís snow everywhere and you donít have the energy to check out a film or go to a bar or even just visit a friend, so you turn on the t.v. and catch a hockey game in mid-period. Thereís been a fight, two guys are screaming, and though youíre not a trained linguist or lip-reader, you can see that a certain f-word is occasionally used. But what, exactly, are these athletes saying? The Good Body, Bill Gastonís new novel, gives you some clues: "Fuckiní stick your fuckiní eyes out, fuckiní chop your head off, fuckiní shit down your fuckiní neck, fuckiní kill ya, Iíll fuckiní kill ya, Iíll fuckiní FUCK ya."

Wonderfully alliterative, that, and note the absence of exclamation marks; Graham Greene, who called them exaggeration marks, would have approved. But this is the point: the hero of Gastonís novel is ostensibly hockey-player Bobby Bonaduce, a man who returns to Fredericton and the son he abandoned twenty years ago, and who wants to win back his sonís love. Bonaduce is our man. We spend almost three-hundred pages in his company after he registers in the M.A. English Literature program at the University of New Brunswick, and then tries out for the schoolís hockey team Ė which his son now plays for. The odds are stacked CN Tower-high against "hand-to-mouth" Bonaduce, and we want him to win. Yet the hero of Gastonís novel is arguably language, and especially colloquial language, the protean charms of the stuff we shout and whisper and deadpan to each other every day of our lives. And in Gastonís novel, the words that tumble our way are Bonaduceís, words lifted from his thoughts by an unseen narrator and served in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, the stops and starts and glides like a hockey playerís skate from one end of the rink to the other. Hockey, language, life: each force takes and resonates the other in The Good Body, and Bonaduce is the conduit.

Here he is, standing outside in the New Brunswick night, thinking about the wife he also left twenty years ago: "Loud stars. Hungry stars. Synaesthesia, grad-student word for the day. This jazzy darkness. Your citrus heart. Sweet and sour Leah." And elsewhere, another sky-gazing moment: "The full moon up there, frozen pearl bouncing at my shoulder." Not just demotic diction, this; Gaston writes a Canadian demotic, using words that conjure up coldness and beauty and physicality, the bouncing moon just as easily a puck swiped at in front of a net by men, men capable of both violence and graceful speed.

The scarred man who returns home after battling abroad: Bonaduce is in the tradition of Homerís Odysseus, of William Kennedyís Francis Phelan in Ironweed, of David Adams Richardsí Jerry Bines in For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. Like Phelan and Bines, Bonaduce feels he must atone, must come to understand his flight and explain it to his son and ex-wife and, most importantly, himself. He must square his love for "the fresh start with nothing" with responsibility to those he believes he loves; he must grow up. For Bonaduce is the forty-year-old who can play guitar, install drywall, last two minutes in an NHL game, cook, wax eloquent on Canadian literature, and write decent first-drafts of a novel Ė but can he be an adult? Early in the novel he reflects on his son: "there was so much to find out about Jason, so much of it so basic. The ever-kindling guilt of the wayward Bonaduce." Gastonís novel is, among many others things, a confessional tale.

Look at his name, Bobby Bonaduce: he sounds like a child. And as his room-mate Margaret observes, he had "a sort of restless On the Road feel to him Ė he was a fifties guy." Yes, Bonaduce as a Beat-generation gadabout, a protracted adolescent, a man who goes through girlfriends Ė Kerouac said that pretty girls make graves Ė as he careers through, well, what? In Bonaduceís case, twenty years of professional hockey, the job that took him out of Fredericton and the lives of his two beloveds. Now, as Gastonís novel opens, he is again barrelling seventy-miles-an-hour down the open road and singing and making plans and exploding with possibilities and dreams Ė this time, however, Bobby Bonaduce is driving home.

Bill Gastonís twin heroes of language and man-as-jock-belletrist stayed with this reader for days after he finished the novel. Bonaduce endears. And Gaston endures: A Good Body is his fourth novel. Gaston has also published three collections of short fiction and a volume of verse; heís had two plays performed; heís written a screenplay (The New Brunswicker); and he recently won the Canadian Literary Award for Short Fiction. A Good Body could be the first Canadian novel that successfully excavates three different worlds Ė hockey, academe, and the broken family Ė and uses as its shovel a resilient humility. Thinking about his fellow grad students and the profs they shared, Bonaduce says to himself: "But hey, heíd show them: he could be stupid in ways theyíd never dreamed of."

Harold Hoefle teaches high school English in Montreal. He has published fiction and book reviews.







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