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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

Just Let Me Look at You

On Fatherhood

by (author) Bill Gaston

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
May 2018
Personal Memoirs, Literary, Death, Grief, Bereavement
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2018
    List Price

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Shortlisted for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 BC Book Prize - Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 BC Book Prize - Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize
From Giller-nominated, award-winning Bill Gaston, a tender, wry, and unforgettable memoir about alcohol, fishing, and all the things fathers and sons won't say to each other

Sons clash with fathers, sons find reasons to rebel. And, fairly or unfairly, sons judge fathers when they take to drinking.

But Bill Gaston and his father could always fish together. When they were shoulder-to-shoulder, joined in rapt fascination with the world under their hull, they had what all fathers and sons wish for. Even if it was temporary, even if much of it would be forgotten along with the empties.

Returning to the past in his old fishing boat, revisiting the remote marina where they lived on board and learned to mooch for salmon, Bill unravels his father's relationship with his father, it too a story marked by heavy drinking, though one that took a much darker turn.

Learning family secrets his father took to the grave, Gaston comes to understand his own story anew, realizing that the man his younger self had been so eager to judge was in fact someone both nobler and more vulnerable than he had guessed.

Warm, insightful, and often funny, Just Let Me Look at You captures every father's inexpressible tenderness, and the ways in which the words for love often come too late for all of us.

About the author

Bill Gaston grew up in Winnipeg, Toronto, and North Vancouver. After spending a dozen years in the Maritimes, he moved to Victoria in 1998 to teach writing at the University of Victoria. He has published a collection of poetry, several plays, three story collections, and three novels, with a fourth, The Good Body, due to appear in spring 2000. "Where It Comes From, Where It Goes" won the 1998 CBC/Saturday Night Canadian Literary Award for fiction and was published in Saturday Night in May 1999.

Bill Gaston's profile page


  • Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize
  • Short-listed, RBC Taylor Prize
  • Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize

Excerpt: Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood (by (author) Bill Gaston)

After decades without, I finally bought myself a boat. My dad would approve.
Because of him I grew up on boats. When I was young I fished from them with passion. In my late teens and early twenties I lived most summers on a boat, in small marinas up the coast, starting with Egmont. On Cormorant I fished and guided. I also played lots of soli­taire, partied, and wrote my first two books on board, clunking away on the typewriter as a fluid world moved underneath.
I loved sleeping aboard, likely for what are narcotic or even return-to-the-womb reasons: a dark enclosure and softly rhythmic motion. After we met, my wife Dede, who knew none of my past, saw me fall into a trance if we happened near a marina. I’d have to study the boats, eyeing their features for those I’d like, wondering if they had a writing table or much of a galley. Lately I check to see if they have downriggers, winch-powered cables that send your cannon ball-weighted lure down to the deeps to troll for salmon.
Boats are magic. That metal or fibreglass can float is a marvel, one your life depends on. It’s not a romantic thought, I feel it in my body. It’s easy to find bygone power in the word vessel.
Sylvan is an old fibreglass tub with a big back open cockpit for fishing. Its twenty-six feet include a miniature bowsprit, a railed plat­form shooting off the bow where, if someone else steered, I could teeter onto and declare myself king of the world. It has a small cabin with V-berth, tiny sink and enclosed bathroom, or “head.”
I’ll avoid nautical terms. At marinas you run into people with boats smaller than mine who say “helm” and “starboard” and, of course, “she.” My boat’s an it. Sylvan is its brand name, painted on the stern, like a big Ford. Its navy canvas top highlights the seagull shit. It’s powered by a big, gas-gulping inboard, plus a small outboard, or “kicker,” for trolling. Both motors are old and the big one has begun burning oil. Many of the switches—for instance the horn, running lights, inside heater, windshield wipers—don’t work. I’ve duct-taped rips in the canvas.
I bought the boat on a whim, but one that felt fated. Out of the blue, after forty years, I was contacted by an old high school teacher. I’d had a crush on her, a Texan who’d moved north for political rea­sons. She had prematurely greying hair, wore serapes and went bare­foot. It was she who’d implanted the idea of writing. In any case, she apparently liked my books, and after I blamed her for inspiring them, her next envelope contained a cheque for ten thousand dollars. I tried to decline it but she insisted, explaining that it was something she did every year, sending this amount to whomever she felt like, from Patch Adams to Obama to unknown poets. She told me to use it on “some­thing missing in your life.” After I had two downriggers installed, Sylvan cost exactly ten thousand dollars.
The boat is decent in moderate waves, and once the motor gets going it tends not to quit. I keep Sylvan in Silva Bay (how fitting is that?) at the cheapest marina and the only one without a waiting list. Reportedly my berth bottoms out in extreme tides, but I’m assured it’s soft mud down there.
The transaction that brought us our place on Gabriola felt fated too. When our father and then mother died, my brother and I sold their condo and, not seeing a wiser investment, bought a place here for the exact amount, to the dollar, we got for the condo. Our two families share it. Somehow it felt right, and also practical, both of those. When I sit on the cabin’s sundeck and view the small orchard and pond, or when I walk the hushed trails through the woods, there’s a palpable sense that this is the fruit of my father’s hard work. His imagined link to this land keeps him alive in ways I can feel. Less poetically, I know I bought this place with his money, feel like a spoiled brat, and imaging him liking it here eases the guilt a bit.


I have an image that catches him perfectly. Not an image really, but a mid-eighties Japanese comic book. I came upon it again a week ago, digging through his stuff. Not knowing how to read Japanese, I think of it as The Big Bob of Mystery Beer Fishing Art Book.
I’m about thirty, still living in Vancouver and over for a morning visit. My dad is late-fifties, newly retired. Morning is the best time. I find him at the dining-room table flipping through what appears to be a comic book he’s just got in the mail. Unlike our comic books, this one is thin, fragile paper, including the cover. And it’s in Japanese. My dad looks befuddled.
The captions are all Japanese characters. Every page or two has a sidebar or sometimes a full-page drawing, rough but artful, of various fish. The cartoon boxes depict a young man, an artist, on a fishing trip, sketching everything he sees.
“Hey,” I say. “This is that trip you took last year. That charter out of Egmont.”
“Right. Right.”
“I remember you telling me about some Japanese artist guy? Drawing everything? He got stung by a rock cod?”
“Right, right. Drawing everything. I remember that guy now.”
I recall it was a business perk, my dad and some other executives wooed with a freebie aboard a forty-foot aluminum houseboat. He’d come back from the weekend with stories about “this funny little Jap” who didn’t fish at all but got all excited when a fish was caught. He’d lay tracing paper on the fish and run charcoal over it.
“It was really something,” he’d said. “It showed all the scales.”
Always instructive, I said, “A ‘rubbing.’”
“He sure was a funny little guy.” My dad had sounded almost affectionate.
It’s too perfect that the comic is Japanese. He still hated them. They were sneaky, they weren’t to be trusted. I didn’t blame him for these feelings. He’d been in a war, he’d had friends die. If I occasion­ally wondered aloud that they couldn’t be all bad, that some were forced to fight, he’d turn away. Fine. I’d never been in a war. An American, my father joined up right after hearing the radio broadcast about Pearl Harbor. He tried the air force, was too tall to be a pilot, so he joined the navy.
But he hated whoever he thought was Japanese. Koreans and Chinese and Inuit were “Japs.” It was sadly funny that for decades he lived beside Layton Wing, a shy family man who was unfailingly friendly to my father, who was only reservedly friendly back. After a few beers, in private, my dad would rail against “that Jap” next door. He’d settle down when I explained again that not only was Mr. Wing Chinese, but that the Chinese hated the Japanese probably more than he did. But he’d forget, and he’d grumble about “that Jap” whenever Layton appeared to be trying to keep up with the Joneses, like when he installed a pool. I actually thought it a good thing that Layton’s pool was a bit smaller than ours. Again, I found it more funny than sad. It was the big, American stupidity, that of not learn­ing who your enemies really are.
I can’t say I believe in the more colourful kind of karma, the one that says if you’re a pickpocket you’re bound eventually to get your pocket picked, if not in this life then the next. But I have to wonder about my dad and his hatred of Japs and those he mistook for them. Near the end, when he broke a hip and suffered a stroke in surgery, he could no longer walk or talk and ended up in a facil­ity where he was tended almost exclusively by Asians. Most were Filipina, some Vietnamese. I never saw a Japanese caregiver, but I did see a certain look in my father’s eye as they spooned him his food, plumped his pillow, and all the rest, bantering in halting English. He wasn’t all there but I know his pride remained, and I can’t imagine how he felt when, chirping, “How you today Bob, you look good,” they washed him and changed his diaper. It would have been an odd hell.
And now we’re looking at the oddest comic book. It’s part graphic novel (though I don’t think they existed yet in the West), part natural science guide to Pacific Northwest fish, with those cool charcoal rub­bings. The story boxes show the artist landing at the Vancouver airport, lugging his art supplies, tongue sticking out with effort, cartoon sweat shooting off his brow. It shows a bus ride, a first meal with clumsy knife and fork, mishaps with mysterious money. Egmont scenery in the back­ground, it shows the houseboat, and him stowing his gear. A seagull wanders close, begging. Overleaf the gull is rendered, full-page and fine art. It really is bizarre. It gets more bizarre when, early the next morn­ing, he wakes up as the houseboat lurches, nearly tipping. He rushes out to encounter a giant climbing aboard. In one hand the giant clutches a beer and the other he holds out to be shaken, “I’m Bob!” emblazoned in caps on his T-shirt in such bold lettering I can hear my dad’s basso profundo voice in the letters. In the next box the artist suffers a crushing handshake and falls to his knees under the giant’s shadow.
The only English in the entire comic book is the “I’m Bob!” on his shirt. The artist has nailed my father’s likeness, though exaggerated: twice the height of everyone else, he wears a skewed cap, and loudly gets in everyone’s face. He appears to lurch like John Wayne. His nose is red. It’s hilarious.
Turning pages, my dad chuckles nervously.
The story shows the men fishing, eating, drinking. My dad is never without a beer. Now he wears the captain’s hat, a ball cap with gold braid, and the captain wears my dad’s hat and doesn’t look happy about it. One box is just my dad’s face, his eyes closed and stars and birds circling his head, passed out. But he is also helpful, showing people how to fish. Near the end he’s battling what appears to be a whopper, and then, chagrined, holds up a minnow.
My dad closes the book, snickers insincerely and flicks it so it spins and slides three feet across the dining-room table. Partly he doesn’t recognize this version of himself, this Bob the rest of us have known for years. And partly he just doesn’t remember that weekend, not a thing.

Editorial Reviews

Shortlisted for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 BC Book Prize - Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 BC Book Prize - Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize

"Under Gaston’s quiet prose lies an ocean of pain and hard truths. Unsentimental and yet deeply poignant, his memoir will resonate with anyone who wanted more from a father than he could give." —Trevor Cole

"This book isn't just for fathers, sons or those who a mother and daughter who does not fish, I nonetheless related to Bill's longing to understand the person who had raised him and helped shape his world view. A beautifully written memoir about the complex layers that exist between parent and child and the drive to find peace with our childhood ghosts." —Cea Sunrise Person, author of North of Normal
“I was heartbroken in the first five pages. Bill Gaston kicks and punches holes in the walls of time and recounts the battle between father and son, a battle that defines us whether we like it or not. For everyone who fights ghosts and knows they're never going to win, but keeps trying.” —Tom Wilson, author of Beautiful Scars
“Bill Gaston’s unflinching courage shines through in his latest memoir, planting him firmly alongside other such top-shelf soul searchers as Mary Karr, David Adams Richards and Nick Flynn. Heartbreaking, hilarious and admittedly haunting, Just Let Me Look at You is a timely and timeless reclamation story, poignant and auspicious, written with heart.” —Joel Thomas Hynes, author of We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night

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