Bill Gaston, Just Let Me Look at You

A brief note on Bill Gaston's memoir Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood, because it's too good a book for me to let it pass but it's been more than six weeks since I read it:
The cover blurb's not wrong to call it a "tender, wry, and unforgettable memoir about alcohol, fishing, and all the things fathers and sons won't say to each other" (though I'm old enough to know that "unforgettable" is pure marketing). Basically, long-recognized former fibber Bill Gaston uses a near-contemporary solo boat trip back to the fishing grounds around Egmont as a vehicle to reflect on his childhood and early adulthood, all of which he's thinking about in terms of his complicated relations with his complicated father.

(Gaston has a brother, incidentally, who clearly would've been part of these stories and of the overall family dynamics. The "Thanks" page notes though that the brother "chose to opt out of this, and [he] has his own story to tell. I'd read the hell out of that book, too.)

Gaston's father is an alcoholic, who for a very long time functioned well at work but not at home, and Gaston recognizes alcoholism's seeds within himself as well. The father was a terrible fisherman, but Gaston worked as a guide for a time, and knows his way around water and boats and fish far better than his father ever did.

He's not kind to his father in his telling, but he's gentle about it, and conflicted, and it's clear from very early on that there's something Gaston isn't telling us about his father's backstory. Indeed, this secret is present enough (though still secret for 200-plus pages) that we recognize Gaston's long, retrospective realization of how prolonged his lived unkindness was.

I described it to a friend as a long, pottering book about one man's fishing/drinking/family history, but  with devastating subtext that Gaston trusts us enough not to burden us entirely with, and I think that's about right. The joy for me in reading this was the sense that Gaston trusted his readers, however many of us there might be, not to need more than hints but also to enjoy the nearly hint-free minutiae of a small-world memoir.

And so I loved it, even when I chafed at having to wait, just like you will.


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