Haunted by ‘Ghosted’ – A book review

Mason Dubisee is a haunted man. And not just by the people he ghost-writes suicide notes for.  The first paragraph of Ghosted, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s first novel, introduces him thus:

“Mason Dubisee dodged a booze-propelled bullet on the day he was born…It was a feat that would prove more difficult as Mason’s life went on.”

The bullet in question was a ricocheting champagne cork popped by a jubilant “Johnny Walker” Joe Dubisee at the side of his wife’s maternity bed, and family lore held that the cork lodged in the pillow merely “an inch from Mason’s infant cranium”.

Throughout the course of his life, narrated in hallucinogenic, fever dream flashbacks and story journals ordered by his rehab doctor, Mason goes from one death-inviting situation to the next, accruing gambling debts, a cocaine addiction and a thrice-broken nose along the way. He finally lands, busted up, broke, and quietly desperate, in the good graces of his lifelong friend – and personal drug dealer – Chaz, a man who moved to Toronto to reunite with long lost relatives in similarly untraditional professions. Put simply, his uncle Fishy’s big business idea is a series of Godfather-themed hotdog stands, he runs an underground (literally) gambling and drug den, and references to “the family” look like they need to be put in Mob-like uppercase letters.

With Mason’s attempts at a writing career as hopeless as his gambling abilities, in order to repay his drug and gambling debts to Chaz – not to mention rent on the thousand square-foot downtown loft Chaz sets him up in – he finds himself taking on the role of hotdog salesman in a giant, plexiglass, fedora hat of a hotdog cart.

It is here he meets Warren, a man with multiple phobias and a surprisingly dark past, who offers a debt-clearing sum of money to Mason in exchange for a series of ghost-written love letters to a mysterious woman. When Warren ends up dragged out of the river, however, Mason’s bewilderment quickly turns to a potential money-making opportunity – ghost-writing suicide notes to create the right amount of pathos in the wake of the soon-to-be-deceased.

However this, as with everything else in Mason’s life, does not go anywhere near according to plan.

With Mason’s notes on a perpetually-unfinished novel functioning as intratextual markers of the progressively unravelling situation, Ghosted tells a story about troubled people with demons. Or, as Bishop-Stall’s anti-hero protagonist puts it, demons with demons.

It is a story about death and the strange, conflicting relationship people have with that most final act. It is about Chaz, an amiable, neat freak drug dealer with a penchant for excessive generousity, who talks like James Cagney and is the kind of guy to commission a Godfather-themed hotdog stand just to help out an uncle with a quirky dream. It is about Willy, a beautiful, wheelchair-bound, heroin addicted enigma. It is about Soon, a man with high artistic vision and even higher strung nerves. It is about Dr Francis, a woman drawn to help the most unsalvageable people – through whatever means necessary.

It is about impossible redemption, descending levels of madness, second, third and fourth chances, and secrets within secrets.

Oh, and it’s also about a man who flies an invisible kite along the streetcar tracks at Spadina and College, and says nothing throughout the entire novel. Yeah.

But mostly, it is about Mason Dubisee, a man whose personal ghosts ride him ever closer to the edge of the cliff, while the reluctant hero in him tries to save the very people who don’t want to be saved.

Now, maybe it’s because the novel is set in Toronto with its familiar locales described in all their larger-than-life glory, but since reading Ghosted I can’t walk past the giant domino sculpture stacked at the corner of Bloor and Spadina without remembering the socially awkward and multi-phobic Warren. Or stroll through Kensington Market without flashing on an image of a hospital gown-clad figure staggering through its streets. Or take the train through Bay Station without an involuntary shudder.

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall has a way of taking you beneath the surface of the ordinary to reveal the horror and beauty lurking below. His first book, Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown was a non-fiction account of his year in deep cover, living among the homeless in Toronto’s infamous and now non-existent ‘Tent City’ shantytown. The book garnered him nominations for several awards, including the 2005 Pearson Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize and the City of Toronto Book Award.

Presumably, that journalistic eye for detail also influences his ability to create startlingly vivid characters who embed themselves in your mind and imagination with the tenacity of would-be jumpers clinging to the bridge railing in a last minute change of heart. With Ghosted, Bishop-Stall draws you into a murky Toronto characterized by violence, mental imbalance, and drug addiction. It is a side of the city few people have reason to acknowledge outside of those directly involved – the drug dealers, the cops, the doctors, as well as their mentally troubled and drug-addicted patients.

Out of all these loosely-connected threads of existence, and with a surprising undercurrent of humour, Bishop-Stall weaves together a tapestry of intensely flawed, yet sympathetic and ultimately memorable characters. Most notable of them all is Mason Dubisee, a man with a Greek chorus of personal ghosts leading him either to damnation or redemption.