Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Help Me, Jacques Cousteau

Share |
Help Me, Jacques Cousteau

The Porcupine's Quill, 1995

Childhood in the sixties and seventies: TV shows like `Rocket Ship 7,' `Leave it to Beaver', and `The Brady Bunch'; tidy, straight-laced families with their patient, aproned moms, wise and kindly if slightly addled dads, and freckle-faced, well-adjusted kids. Hardly the makings of literary fiction one might think, but this assumption is hilariously and skilfully contradicted in Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, the outstanding debut collection of short stories by Toronto's Gil Adamson.

Gil Adamson knows that behind the bland exteriors of the cookie-cutter bungalows there are evolving psychodramas that would make even John Bradshaw wince. In the 13 linked stories that make up Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, Adamson trains her gimlet eye and razor-sharp prose on the goings-on of a statistically average but unusually eccentric family - Janey, North, and their two children, Hazel and Andrew - and their even stranger satellite members. There's rich Uncle Castor who collects only white animals, and tale-spinning, feckless Uncle Bishop who brawls and drinks and woos would-be `aunties' with doomed results, and a quarrelsome grandfather who takes Hazel for rides in a Cadillac with a dead dog in the back seat.

It is through Hazel's observant but detached eyes that we watch the family's goings-on, her unflinching vision informed by the precocious perception that however bad things may be they are only likely to get worse. She watches with bemusement as they go through the rituals of a Christmas dinner that culminates in attending the funeral of a man not one of them knew, and of a wedding that ends with the bride storming out. She senses that her mismatched parents, narcoleptic and impractical North and prosaic Janey, are headed for a rupture but is content to let things unravel in their own ineluctable fashion. Hazel's younger brother Andrew shows signs of following in the family's unconventional footsteps with his addiction to TV, his bizarre questions (`If you had to kill your best friend or your parents, which would it be?'), and his strange inventions, like solar-powered curtains. Yet however odd and even slightly menacing the world inhabited by these fully-fleshed characters, there is an unnerving familiarity to their dilemmas and discordancies that makes the stories resonate with conviction.

Gil Adamson cites as her influences Michael Ondaatje, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Mark Richard. Her acclaimed short fiction has been widely published in magazines and literary journals, and her collection of stories received rave reviews.