I recently read Len Gasparini's short story collection, A Demon in My View (Guernica, 2003) and found myself absorbed by the writing. I have long been a fan of his spirited poetry and was anxious to savour his prose. I found it to be equally poignant.
In his stories, as in his poetry, Gasparini carefully and meticulously examines the stuff of someone's everyday life, the often mundane experiences which somehow explode with unexpected meaning or surprising conclusions.
Gasparini has never been afraid to tackle the common denominator in all of us: the pangs of youth, the stormy years of what should be the prime of life, the ambivalence of middle age, the disappointment in any or all of these stages.
He sometimes laces his tales with humour and we reel with laughter, perhaps remembering experiences in our own lives which, though different, may parallel the lives of his characters. In "Facts of Life," for instance, Gasparini's tableau of 1950s teenagers is so exact that all we have to do is replace the names of individuals in the story with people we once knew or were. There's Don Belleperche who "was handsome in a hoodlumish way, and knew things boys his age weren't supposed to know." Gasparini then tells us Belleperche "always had a hard on in class" and when a teacher asked him a question and he had to rise, he clutched a textbook "to conceal the erection straining his fly." Then there's Helen who "always had a hickey on her neck" and Frenchie and Dirty Gertie "who acquired an almost mythical status for their promiscuity" and Marcuzzi who "could fart at will."
All this fun and laughter, this male bravado and female lust, turns rather sinister when the lisping Father Poisson comes to their Catholic school to talk to the boys about the facts of life. The priest does his best to keep the boys from doing what they have long been doing. The story remains hilarious despite Father Poisson's futile warnings, or perhaps because of them, since it is quite clear these boys do not take the priest seriously. How can they when he preaches that "To bring about deliberately even the slightest sexual pleasure, alone or with someone elth (the lisp), or to take delight in it with your will if it is accidentally aroused, is always a mortal sin
The priest's warnings are a joke, and everyone knows it, but it is more than that to us, the readers. There is a sense of grave injustice here, of dishonesty and villainy on the part of Father Poisson.
Gasparini takes up the same theme in the next story, "Cross of Flesh," where a young boy is fondled by another priest and is left feeling confused and unclean. When the incident comes to an end, the boy says, "It was as though my heart had been darkened by the knowledge of sin through the iniquity of a priest who, in the name of religion, had cast a light on sin."
Gasparini can recreate a scene vividly with all the sounds and smells it was originally encased in. His clean, uncomplicated, lucid writing guides us right into the lives of his characters. As the title of the book and the cover suggest, the author is dealing with the demons we all carry on our backs, the demons that linger in our peripheral vision. In these stories, the demons can be actual people who have impacted the lives of the protagonists in the book, or they can be the demons the demons themselves carry.
Sometimes, as in "Wild Pitch," the demon is a regret of the road not taken in life. Here we see a middle-aged man intent upon resurrecting a long abandoned baseball career which had held much promise. He refuses to listen to his body until it refuses to cooperate and dishes out a lot of pain. The protagonist (author?) laments that he has "wasted a better part of (his) life by not pursuing a baseball career." Instead, he became a poet. "I was a prisoner of poetry
" he tells us. "An 8 1/2" by 11" sheet of lined paper was the barred window through which I peeped out, trying to render a poetic image of reality. Now I wanted out of my paper prison. I wanted to grip a baseball instead of a ball-point pen."
In all the stories, there is a sense that people regret what they did not do, or what they did do, or what was done to them, and these, of course, are the demons. "Amy Crissum" is another compelling story which paints a picture of Marc Larose, a lonely middle-aged man who falls for an oversexed woman who uses him. Why, we wonder, does Larose not see what is so plain to everyone? What is it about such women that make them irresistible to men? The ending of this piece is quite stunning, and we feel justice has been done. Amy Crissum has merited her fate. But if we stop to think about Amy, we can't help but see that she too had been demonized and this creates some empathy for her despite her actions.
This is what makes Gasparini's stories many faceted and layered. As we read them, we not only empathize with the teller of the story, but also with the source of the problem. Why does Amy Crissum mount every man she sees? Why is the husband in "Sign Language" unfaithful? Gasparini invites us to go beyond the story the narrator tells and the demon in his view; he asks us to also consider what's up with the demon.
On a more personal note, I must say I got a bonus from this collection since much of it is set in Windsor, Ontario, where both Gasparini and I grew up. He is never afraid to mention names and places and events and, as a long time resident of our shared city, it probably gave me a few added guffaws. In addition, Gasparini was in Windsor recently and I had an opportunity to talk to him about his collection. I told him I was continually amazed at his knowledge, which is plain to see in the stories. "You must know everything," I said to him. "Well, no," he replied in his usual shy manner." "I sense this is very autobiographical," I continued. He laughed and sort of denied it.
It matters not a bit, however, if it is or isn't autobiographical. The stories are well crafted episodes of lives and it matters not whose life it is.
I also told Gasparini that I was fascinated by his endings. They are sometimes abrupt and unexpected as in "The Facts of Life" and in "Off-Off-Broadway," and it is only after you put the book down for a second that the precision of the ending is revealed. In other words, if you haven't got the point yet, nothing else the author is going to say will do the trick. And so, Gasparini simply shuts the door and moves to another room/story. I highly recommend this collection. And if a few parts make you blush or wince because of the author's choice language, blame it on the demon in Gasparini's view.
Marisa De Franceschi is a novelist and short story writer living in Windsor, Ontario. She is the editor of Pillars of Lace: The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Women Writers (1998).