The World / Bill Gaston
Toronto: Hamish Hamilton Canada, c2012.
I started out enjoying this book very much. It begins in B.C., with Stuart Price (former woodworking teacher, now early retiree) happily burning his mortgage papers in a ceremony that he vaguely remembered his parents doing in the past. Stuart, however, manages to fumble even this, and a stray ember ends up igniting his newly-paid-off house later that night. Unfortunately, his house insurance was not nearly as paid off.
With nothing much left but his 70's Datsun and an ongoing insurance claim, Stuart decides to head east and drive to Toronto to visit an old friend, Melody, who has just reconnected after 27 years to tell him she has cancer.
Stuart's drive east is a riot. He stops off in places familiar to me, like Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, and Kenora. He stops at libraries to use the internet or to find a book written by Mel's father years before (also called "The World"). He has one misadventure after another, from breaking his glasses to discovering that he has lice. When his car finally bites it in Parry Sound, he is homeless, carless, hairless, and money-less. He scrapes up enough to take the bus into Toronto, where he is finally arrested for vagrancy and for challenging a police officer.
That's the end of part one. And I couldn't help myself, I laughed through his troubles. Gaston has described them so precisely, with such a sense of humour -- it's the laugh-or-cry principle, and poor Stuart just keeps getting more and more piled upon him.
When part two begins, Stuart is rescued from jail by Mel. She is in the last stages of throat cancer, planning her exit from this life and the menu for her wake. Her father, Hal, has Alzheimer's and is in a care home, where they spend much time visiting. Mel's back story, Hal's many years as a Buddhist in Tibet, and the story-within-the-story of Hal's novel "The World" all intermingle with Stuart's story to fill the last half of the book.
While each was interesting enough on its own, I found there were too many storylines going on, and the latter half of the book felt unfocused and didn't have nearly the same interest and punch as the first half. I wanted more of Stuart, who becomes a rather vague character in the last part of the book. I loved Gaston's earlier novel, The Order of Good Cheer, and found the intermingling of past and present in that novel very effective. In The World, however, I loved the beginning and Stuart's mad dash across the country. But once in Toronto, the story bogged down for me: after having seen the vastness of the country, being stuck in Hal's nursing home felt limiting, despite the intermingling stories from all over. I feel that this could have been two separate books, one about Stuart and one about Mel and Hal, and the possibly autobiographical novel within the novel didn't add anything to my reading experience.
Gaston is a wonderful writer with a very accessible voice, and has created some great characters. This one just tried to include too much of the world, for me. Paradoxically, a little bit of a narrower view might have brought the story into sharper focus.