Reviewed by Oliver Hunt
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall opens his debut novel, Ghosted, with the first few lines of Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake.” He anoints it “the greatest song ever written about going to hell.” More lyrical snippets from “Fire Lake” appear throughout the novel as a refrain. Bishop-Stall apparently has hell on his mind.
The hell Bishop-Stall chronicles is as alluring as it is oppressive—an anarchic carnival crowded with noise and color, whose inhabitants not only survive the chaos, but thrive in and feed off of it. Jugglers, circus geeks, musicians, artists, hard-living bohemians, schizophrenics, strung-out junkies, thugs, bikers and sociopaths all drink, drug, gamble, orbit, connect and collide in Toronto’s streets, parks and narcotic-friendly speakeasies.
The living purgatory of the desperate and depraved is familiar territory for Bishop-Stall. In fact, those familiar with him as a journalist may find him cannibalizing his work a bit. His previous book, Down to This: Splendor and Squalor in a Big City Shantytown, is a memoir of his year spent living among the homeless in a notorious Toronto hobo camp. Before that he’d written a number of firsthand fringe life accounts for Canadian publications The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Saturday Night.
Ghosted is Bishop-Stall’s first fiction novel. While his journalistic voice lends itself well to fiction, he aims for the more stylized and lyrical here. Less curmudgeonly and more educated than Bukowski (to whom he’s sometimes compared), Bishop-Stall rejects the shrugging, misanthropic resignation for a more warily optimistic regard of street culture kickabouts like Mason Dubisee.
Turning thirty, impulsive train wreck and wannabe novelist Dubisee stalls his compulsive drifting in Toronto and starts working at a mafia themed (and criminally owned) hot dog stand, where he tells one of his customers, the hyper-neurotic Warren, that he's a writer. Warren, intrigued, commissions Mason to write a love letter to his object of likely unrequited infatuation.
When Warren turns up dead, Mason's letter looks like a suicide note, even to Mason. Feeling deceived, Mason nonetheless sees a potential market niche. Driven by debts incurred from drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, he posts an online ad for services as a professional suicide note ghostwriter. He begins to see his work as assisted suicide, as if his pre-mortem obituaries and eulogies, in the form of his clients' own last words, are the push they need, the permission to die. His freelancing taxes his conscience, but he agrees to one last assignment, for a violent psychopath who has something other than his own end in mind.
While the title Ghosted can be read as a play on ghostwriting for the suicidal, it's defined in the book as being haunted by lost potential. In the words of Mason's treatment counselor, Dr. Francis, it's the residue left over when all a person's imagined future selves are lost to impending reality. These former higher selves attempt to guide us in a perpetual push and pull with our impulses. The unrepentant Seth, a man for whom immediate, violent gratification is everything, illustrates their lack.
“There is no greater attainment than alright,” Seth journals, before detailing his most disturbing crime in a history full of them. “That’s all you can hope for, and you’ll do anything to get it.”
Seth’s portrayal of pure evil takes the novel in a more aggressive, psychologically jarring direction. Unfortunately, when the book takes on thriller elements it stretches itself a bit thin (especially when the book’s addled antihero becomes something of an addled action hero). You can’t help but feel that it loses a ghost along the way—one of a richer, if less adrenalized, novel. Enough interesting situations and characters are introduced that the turn to over-the-top violence threatens to cheapen them. Bishop-Stall creates enough of an investment that you’re along for the ride, but when the ride’s over you wonder if that’s all it was, despite all the poetic language of ghosts and regrets.
However, with its self-deprecating antihero and its knowing black humor, the book appears not to be taking itself too seriously. All the lyricism and talk of inner ghosts are simply part of the job of entertaining the audience. And with the lengths Bishop-Stall travels to entertain, you can’t help but feel that if he still has hell on his mind, you’d revisit it with him. It’s an interesting place to explore, and the deeper he goes, the richer it promises to be.Posted on March 16, 2011 at 1:12 PM