Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall received plaudits and some notoriety for his first book, Down to This, which recounted the year he spent living among the homeless in Toronto’s now-defunct Tent City. It’s not a stretch to assume that the experiences that informed the earlier work have spilled over into his first book of fiction.
Mason Dubisee, the novel’s 30-year-old protagonist, is not actually homeless, but he is a frustrated writer who has spent the last five years spinning in a vortex of alcohol and cocaine abuse and gambling debts. His cousin Chaz has found him a place to live in Toronto’s Chinatown, but also keeps him on a steady diet of drugs that impedes Mason’s ability to pay the rent.
When Mason is offered several thousand dollars to write what turns out to be a suicide note, he senses an opportunity. He advertises his ghostwriting services to other potential life-takers and gets an inquiry from Soon, a formerly successful artist still bitter about losing a competition to design the suicide-prevention barrier on the Bloor Street Viaduct. Mason lets himself be persuaded by Soon’s argument that his suicide will be a form of art.
But Mason soon becomes tortured by the guilt of his own success. After signing up for rehab, Mason meets with another potential client, this time with the intention of saving him and redeeming himself. Unfortunately for Mason, the client turns out to be a sociopathic killer with a vendetta.
Bishop-Stall has a brash, masculine style that owes obvious debts to writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. He is at his best when he keeps things light and strange, and the first half of Ghosted is enormously funny. However, the dark territory the novel eventually descends into is uncomfortable for the reader, and the improbable events leading up to it are confounding. Bishop-Stall’s talent and imagination are formidable; he just needs to focus them on his strengths.