Aaron Shepard, When Is A Man

 I don’t blame reviewers of Aaron Shepard’s debut novel, When Is A Man, for not quite getting it, but even when they liked the novel, they didn’t get it.

Or maybe they didn’t get all of it, or maybe their editors wouldn’t let them keep writing?

The surface of When Is A Man is rich enough, distracting enough, that a reader can think that that’s also the core of the novel. Absolutely, it’s tempting to lionize its unsparing portrait of a young man (Ed.—he’s in his 30s, so…?) (Auth.—like I said, young) who has developed prostate cancer and has survived only via major surgical intervention.

If these reviewers had actually lionized Shepard and his novel, I wouldn’t mind so much, but the fact is that when When Is A Man came out in 2014, it didn’t sell. And it very much should have sold, so I blame them for the terrible disappointment that I don’t yet have the opportunity to read the climate-change novel that Shepard told John Threlfall at the time that he was working on.1

In one of the more insightful comments on this novel, albeit a brief one, novelist and short-storyist D.W. Wilson comments that Shepard’s “voice taps a deeper register than the mere description” (p24).2 Wilson is discussing how Shepard worded the novel’s sweat-lodge scene, the perfectly chosen “married” in particular, but the point’s worth generalizing. Shepard is deliberate with his phrasing, with his images and small metaphors in descriptions, and his phrasing gives you all kinds of satisfying threads to tug on and pursue.

Among other things, it turns out that Paul Rasmussen, the novel’s protagonist, a 33-year-old flailing doctoral student in anthropology and recent survivor of prostate cancer surgery, is also a fish (but not really, so don’t let this distract you. Read the book!).3

To offer the barest outline, When Is A Man follows one man’s journey from disease, from professional collapse, and from isolation, towards something like health, toward something like success, in something like community (except that he’s not quite healthy, he’s not quite successful [yet], and it’s not quite his community [yet], either).

When the novel begins, we’re driving with Paul towards the isolated West Kootenay camp he’s about to spend a few months at, where twice every day, he’ll be trapping, measuring and tagging trout that are migrating upstream to spawn.

(It’s ironic, of course, that Paul’s prostate cancer surgery has rendered him sexually impotent, when the book’s first third has him counting fish who at this point in their lives are completely consumed by the fulfillment of their sexual/procreative instincts. This capacity for irony’s a strength of the book, not a weakness.)

Retrospectively, we also visit the isolated apartment he’s leaving behind in Vancouver, and we also drive part of the long road he has travelled between these two points. In both of these phases of his journey, we see some of Paul’s manifold agonies: urinating painfully while leaning on a roadside fence as cars go by, having to massage his perineum just to coax out a dribble of urine; hating himself for erratically but persistently moistening his incontinence pads; reflecting constantly on his fading academic successes, as he faces a summer and autumn alone and away from his research.

As reviewers at the time noted, this is an unflinching portrait of life after a prostatectomy, which forces Paul to reconsider everything he’s ever felt or thought about masculinity. The clarity of this portrait is why it made sense for those early reviewers to focus on this surface, and if that’s all there was (but there’s much more), it’d already be an impressive book.

Paul begins his journey by the Fraser River in Vancouver, but he ends by a stream that’s a minor tributary of the Columbia River instead, so he’s not paralleling a salmon’s migration, but absolutely it’s a journey from ocean to mountain headwaters. He’s also counting trout, too, rather than salmon, but Paul has been conditioned to think “salmon” during any talk of spawning. When salmon spawn, they die, and that’s what Paul expects to see when he arrives at Basket Creek. He has forgotten, though, that when trout spawn, they don’t die, returning afterwards (if they’re lucky) to the lakes or rivers where they spend most of their lives.

The question, then, is whether Paul is a salmon, who’s facing death, or a trout, who’ll get another chance at life.

Or to skip the symbolism that I’m imposing unduly on When Is A Man, the novel makes us wonder what Paul’s fate will be after his time at Basket Creek. He is after all literally and figuratively upstream from everything he has ever known, and when he first walks in the creek, he finds himself “Hauling himself upstream to stagger on the spawning grounds” (p20). A little later, contemplating the interior of the trailer he’d be living in, he remarks that “it would be like living in an egg” (p24). After his first morning’s work counting fish, and after his boss Tanner has left, Paul has a small crisis:

“Ten o’clock. Waders off, and his work done until nightfall. Now what the hell was he supposed to do? He returned to where they’d eaten breakfast at the confluence and crouched on the shore to absently scoop warm pebbles and sift them through his fingers.” (p38)

It’s sort of like he’s building a redd, in other words, and given his currently emasculated state, it’s appropriate that among trout or salmon, that’s a girl’s job.

If this is symbolic, and fine by me if it isn’t, there’s no precision to the symbolism. It’s allusive, at most: Paul is in an egg, waiting to become an alevin; he’s building a redd, like a female salmonid; he’s of indeterminate gender, staggering toward the spawning grounds. In any case, these images all come from his first few days at his Basket Creek camp, so it’s really just setting the scene for what follows, which in the book’s first of three sections is Paul’s increasing immersion and groundedness into the place.

When I use terms like “immersion,” I’m being only partly metaphoric. When a young man named Jory visits the camp to go kayaking, he gives Paul a homemade spotting scope so that he can watch fish underwater; after this, part of Paul’s regular routine is to wander the Immitoin River and Basket Creek, imagining himself into the trout’s own environment: immersion. While driving Jory upriver to where he wants to launch, too, Paul is finally able to look around him at the larger environment:

“The road sloped upward and they climbed until on his right, across from the river, the mountains rose into view, craggy and snow-covered along their cathedral-like tops. For the first time he saw the magnitude of the range as it stretched to the north and south, the layers of peaks stacked westward, blue shapes blended into the sky. The river had disappeared behind a patchwork of clear-cuts, slash piles, and dense plantations of young spruce and larch.” (p66)

Beautiful, right? But it’s also limited, and that’s part of my point. This description is classic romanticism, verging on wilderness worship, and it’s from the book’s first section. Paul has so, so much growing to do as When Is A Man develops. This growth starts immediately, as on the very next page Jory “rattle[s] off a list of local antiquities: trappers’ cabins in the woods, cemeteries in the middle of nowhere, mineshafts, abandoned logging equipment.” This whole area is a lived environment, one that has been occupied for thousands of years, and Paul needs to grasp this.

To make a long story short, Paul’s fate will be bound up in how he comes to understand the reservoir that’s mostly known as Immitoin Lake,4 under the waters of which lies the drowned village of Lambert, whose inhabitants 40 years later still carry the psychosocial scars of being uprooted.

The book’s first third unfolds more or less chronologically through numbered chapters, as does the final third. The middle section isn’t experimental or anything, but it is a single long section, comprising interview transcripts as well as narrative; as a result, it does feel a little like stream-of-consciousness to document Paul’s gradual integration into the life of Shellycoat, the small town at the heart of the valley, as well as the gradual reintegration of his own parts into some new identity. The path travelled by the book’s final third, in consequence, is different from the one from its first third.

I’ve already burned more words here than I suspect anyone will read, but if you’re still here, one thing that leapt off the page late for me was Shepard’s description of Paul’s anxiety about his new research project, namely a study of Lambert’s displacement. In Paul’s anxiety, I see Shepard’s own misgivings about this novel, but also my own about my own reading, teaching and research:

“It was a subject that might come off as quaint and old-fashioned not only to most academics but to general readers as well—more history, more memories and sorrows, all the old clichés. Another study dabbling poetically and inconsequentially in the past. And located somewhere too regional: remote but not exotic.” (p236)

Shepard made the choice in When Is A Man to fictionalize the setting, not to base it on particular locations, but it’s distinctly a British Columbia novel. Yes, it’s about masculinity (and surviving prostate cancer), and it’s about dams and displacement generally, but its preoccupations are BC preoccupations. Much like the work of Theresa Kishkan, Harold Rhenisch, and others, this novel exists in a direct line from Ethel Wilson’s, like Swamp Angel whose protagonist takes a parallel journey from Vancouver, ending up in the Thompson rather than the Kootenays; from Jack Hodgins’, like The Invention of the World except that Paul’s tracking the consequences of a dam whereas Maggie’s tracking the progress of clear-cut logging; from Bertrand Sinclair’s, like The Inverted Pyramid except that novel’s about the consequences of logging, not a dam.

For me, Aaron Shepard’s When Is A Man goes onto a growing but still relatively short shelf of classic BC fiction, meaningful to readers from elsewhere but essential to readers of BC, that I’ll keep trying to foist onto as many readers as possible.

One reason that Paul’s anxiety about his project stands out to me is because, simply put, I feel the same way about this notional shelf I’ve spent my whole life filling. With Theresa Kishkan’s recent posts about the likelihood she’ll stop publishing, it’s been made clear to me all over again that this is a shared anxiety, which indeed may go some distance toward why explaining that it’s been a decade since Shepard published his debut novel, without a follow-up.

Do I wish that in When Is A Man, Shepard had made some different choices? Sure, but it’s not my novel, and I’m not writing one. This is one of the novels that I can rely on, if I needed to point to something to help explain this my beloved place to someone who doesn’t get it yet. While this won’t help Shepard pay his bills, and it may not convince another reader to share Paul Rasmussen’s journey, it explains the depths of my feelings for this book.

Read the damned thing. You won’t regret it, especially if BC means something to you.


As with so many books, I’m deeply grumpy and vaguely self-loathing that I somehow failed to read and write about When Is A Man on its publication, and so to help it on its way, even though I’m also intensely aware that my book-blogging has never been influential. These things aren’t opposites. And my blame of other reviewers is, of course, mostly tongue-in-cheek.


This discussion appears in Wilson’s doctoral dissertation, which is available online if you want to track it down. I found the whole thing fascinating, but I recognize that many former grad students aren’t entirely comfortable seeing their work released into the wild. That’s why I haven’t hyperlinked to it; you’ll have to search on your own.

Also, Wilson slightly misquotes Shepard’s sweat-lodge passage, writing “head” when it should be “heat,” but these things happen. There are typos in my ancient dissertation, too.


Paul isn’t a fish, and it’s not that kind of book but very much a realist novel. Still, I do think that fish are just part of the book’s register of ephemeral background symbols. It’s not a symbolic book, just one that makes wonderful use of local systems of metaphor and symbol, and by “local” I mean “British Columbia.” The lifecycle of salmon is just part of our intellectual framework, so it’s part of Shepard’s as well, and probably Paul’s, too.


I’m tempted to ask the author, but I feel like the name of Immitoin Lake might be an inside joke. Shepard has Paul learn from an old local-history book, Dixon’s Gold, that “Immitoin” means “sheltered place” (p108). The book’s a work of Shepard’s imagination, and he says that the location and its names are mostly made up as well, but I’m intrigued by the word “immitoin.” In a real local-history article about names in the Kootenays, Greg Nesteroff notes that according to authors Mary Warkentin and Rose Ann Rohn, the now-extinct village of Broadwater once held that name: “The Indians who used to winter there called it Immitoin, meaning sheltered place.” As Nesteroff points out, though, the etymology is unclear, but it seems possible that “Immitoin” was the name of the house built by George Illingworth and his wife Ruth (née Burley). I do love a good rabbit-hole.


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