by Bill Gaston

Novelist, dramatist, poet and short story writer Bill Gaston is a quadruple threat, but it’s with his short story collections that he’s had the most measurable success (his 2002 collection Mount Appetite was nominated for a Giller Prize, 2006’s Gargoyles for the Governor General’s Award). Gaston’s work has a number of recurring themes, yet the range of situations with which he explores these consistently astonishes; ditto for his ability to temper the macabre and the cringeworthy with humour.

JULIET WAS A SURPRISE Bill GastonThe title story of Juliet Was a Surprise, Gaston’s follow-up to his 2012 novel The World, is a triumph of arboristic schadenfreude. “House Clowns,” its opener, is so nastily brilliant it forces everything else to sit slightly under its shadow. In it, a nameless professor on leave (presumably for mental health issues) finds that his rental lakeside cottage has been double booked by the owners. Like him, we’re initially not sure which way is up: is the grubby, car-less young couple who’ve ensconced themselves in the cottage while our protagonist was out just a pair of grifters? Could the fact that there’s more money in his wallet than he remembered be, as he suspects, part of a subtle confidence game or, to use his term, purposeful “choreography”? His increasing paranoia culminates in an Ian McEwanesque incident in a canoe, where even the sun is “hot, stern and instructive.”

The story’s doubled-edged theme, which you could roughly sum up as the deceptiveness of appearances and the difficulty of interpreting others’ intentions, runs through the collection like a red thread. During a scrappy night of camping and chicken stealing with two acquaintances from high school, the narrator of “Cake’s Chicken” discovers that the duo are not the hard-core partiers he took them for, and further, that one of them has powerful psychic abilities limited only by his native dimwittedness. In “Four corners” a mutual fund salesman’s plans to break up with his secretary girlfriend get railroaded when she surprises him with a dinner introduction to her passive aggressive father.

The theme is there too in “Petterick,” in which a 24-year-old virgin finally makes a move on his putative girlfriend only to discover that their signals were hopelessly crossed and worse, that the fetid smell in her apartment has a disturbingly personal source.

Great fun, and another robust, distinctive collection from one of our most intriguing practitioners of the form.

—Emily Donaldson is a freelance reviewer and editor