Quill & Quire
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall received plaudits and some notoriety for his first book, Down to This, which recounted the year he spent living among the homeless in Toronto’s now-defunct Tent City. It’s not a stretch to assume that the experiences that informed the earlier work have spilled over into his first book of fiction.
Mason Dubisee, the novel’s 30-year-old protagonist, is not actually homeless, but he is a frustrated writer who has spent the last five years spinning in a vortex of alcohol and cocaine abuse and gambling debts. His cousin Chaz has found him a place to live in Toronto’s Chinatown, but also keeps him on a steady diet of drugs that impedes Mason’s ability to pay the rent.
When Mason is offered several thousand dollars to write what turns out to be a suicide note, he senses an opportunity. He advertises his ghostwriting services to other potential life-takers and gets an inquiry from Soon, a formerly successful artist still bitter about losing a competition to design the suicide-prevention barrier on the Bloor Street Viaduct. Mason lets himself be persuaded by Soon’s argument that his suicide will be a form of art.
But Mason soon becomes tortured by the guilt of his own success. After signing up for rehab, Mason meets with another potential client, this time with the intention of saving him and redeeming himself. Unfortunately for Mason, the client turns out to be a sociopathic killer with a vendetta.
Bishop-Stall has a brash, masculine style that owes obvious debts to writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. He is at his best when he keeps things light and strange, and the first half of Ghosted is enormously funny. However, the dark territory the novel eventually descends into is uncomfortable for the reader, and the improbable events leading up to it are confounding. Bishop-Stall’s talent and imagination are formidable; he just needs to focus them on his strengths.
“Lean and mean and with a surprising amount of heart. Make no mistake, Ghosted is for real.”
— Ray Robertson, author of David
“Ghosted is not for the faint of heart—in places it’s an unflinching exploration of depravity. But it is, above all, an often funny, always optimistic parable of victory over demons of despair, the ghosts of our failed selves.”
— Linden MacIntyre, Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of The Bishop’s Man
“Bukowski craggy and Hornby sweet, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted is a smart book about smart guys who can’t stop from acting dumb. The real pleasure, though, is in the lines: funny sad, funny strange, and funny zing! A hell of a first novel.”
— Andrew Pyper, author of The Killing Circle
“A harrowing and spellbinding tour through the world of addiction that combines elements of Infinite Jest with Silence of the Lambs.”
— Don Gillmor, author of Kanata
“The unique voice heard throughout Ghosted is so heartbreakingly authentic. . . . A terrifying but moving and life-affirming paean to love, friendship, devotion, determination and all those other characteristics that make human beings such wonderfully fascinating creatures in real life and in richly imagined novels like Ghosted.”
— Ottawa Citizen
“A savage, heartfelt, exhilarating first novel . . . Ghosted is, in a nutshell, a book about a guy who becomes a ghostwriter of suicide notes. What makes this high-concept premise work is the book’s a) heart, and b) voice. Which may, in the final analysis, be one and the same thing.”
“Absolutely exhilarating. . . . Bishop-Stall is a major talent. . . . Bishop-Stall has an unarguably unique voice, urgent and impossible to ignore.”
— NOW (Toronto)
“Inventive first novel. . . . Ghosted crackles. . . . Impressive, ambitious and exhausting, Ghosted is a novel for those who don’t scare easily.”
— Kevin Chong, The Globe and Mail
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Mason Dubisee dodged a booze-propelled bullet on the day he was born.
His father came in to the hospital room smiling—a bottle of champagne cradled in his arms. He looked at his wife and newborn son, tore off the foil and cranked the wire. Angling the bottle heavenward, he pushed with his thumbs.
The cork shot out with incredible force. It ricocheted off the ceiling, a wall, then rocketed into the pillow an inch from Mason’s infant cranium.
His father told the story for years to come. Grinning with pride, he’d pass around the infamous cork: “I swear to God, he dodged the fucking thing.”
It was a feat that would prove more difficult as Mason’s life went on.
On his thirtieth birthday, Mason opened his eyes—and saw water pipes. They were painted white, against a white ceiling. It took him a moment to realize he was somewhere comfortable and quiet. There was nobody kicking him, or trying to grab his stuff or banging on the door. He wasn’t too cold and he was barely hung over. There was a pillow beneath his head and when he rolled onto his side, it smelled like a new stuffed animal.
He looked at the far wall: exposed brick, power-washed clean. There were silver and bronze specks in the bricks and in the grouting, and they sparkled beneath a skylight. Against the wall was an ancient curlicued radiator, painted deep chestnut. The floor beneath it was hardwood, also dark, giving way to ceramic tiles—midnight blue and mottled—demarcating the kitchen area.
It was a thousand square-foot loft. According to Chaz it used to be a belly dance studio. If he kept turning around in bed like this he could see every corner of it.
After a while Mason was ready to get up. Or rather, down. The bed was fairly high—not so much that you’d injure yourself if you fell out, but enough that it would hurt to land. There was a three-step ladder, with storage space beneath. A captain’s bed, it was called. Mason kind of liked that. He kind of liked everything right now. It was his thirtieth birthday and here he was: waking up in a captain’s bed. He had an open concept, a skylight and hardwood floors darkened by the sweat of amateur belly dancers. The day was full of possibility.
He climbed down and pulled on a pair of boxers. They were green, with penguins on them. He stood in the middle of the room, light spilling in from all directions. There were two large windows at the front, looking down onto Spadina Avenue—and one at the back that opened onto a flat tarmac roof. He surveyed the apartment, flecks of gold dust in the air.
By one of the front windows stood a simple oak desk, by the other a seating area with a burgundy couch, two easy chairs and a TV, then a shelving unit, a cabinet and a dresser, all empty. Mason’s to fill.
Other than the duffle bag by the door, the only proof of habitation was on the table in the centre of the room. Mason pulled up a chair and studied it: Johnnie Walker Black—almost empty—two glasses, a rolled-up twenty, an ashtray surrounded by ashes, white residue, playing cards, poker chips . . .
How much did you lose?
He wasn’t sure, but he knew he hadn’t won—Chaz was better at poker than he used to be.
Mason picked up one of the glasses and walked into the kitchen area. The icy ceramic felt good on the soles of his feet. There was a coffee maker on the counter. He looked at it for a while, but there were too many buttons. He opened the fridge: beer and an open box of baking soda. He poured himself a glass of water, dug into his duffle bag for paper and a pen, then crossed the room and sat down on the sunlit couch. He wrote:
He wouldn’t usually have known the day of the week, but today was a day for cognizance, for new beginnings. He underlined To-Do List. Then Monday. Then he looked out the window.
He was sitting on the couch in his underwear staring out the window when Chaz came in. “What’s the headline, pigeon?”
“So what? You don’t knock?”
“Not till you start paying rent.” He walked over to the table in the centre of the room, slung his jacket over a chair, then started gathering up the cards. Chaz was sort of a neat freak.
“How much did I lose last night?”
“Two and a half.”
Mason’s heart rate doubled, his skin got cold. “Thousand?”
“Don’t worry,” said Chaz, stacking up the chips. “I know where you live.” He went into the kitchen area to get a dishcloth.
Until yesterday it had been five years since they’d seen each other, but Chaz looked much the same. He was wiry and there was a slickness to him, like shiny leather. Mason was well-worn suede—barrel-chested, beaten in, rough around the edges.
They’d been friends since they were kids. And now, as adults, they came on like men who’d gotten away with something, tough guys who liked to dance. Both were handsome in certain lights—dim ones mostly—which fit their lives just fine.
Chaz was wiping up the ashes. “You got some rhino coming, right?”
Other than being better at poker, this was another way he’d changed. It used to be Chaz only talked like a whacked-out gangster when he was drunk, but now he was like Jimmy Cagney on Ritalin. “I’m in a good mood,” he’d said the day before, by way of explanation. But Chaz’s mood was often good. He was the least haunted smart guy Mason had ever met.
“Rhino?” said Mason.
“You might have called it something else.” Chaz threw the dishcloth into the sink. “But if it’s a problem . . .”
“No. No. You’re right, I’ve got magazine money owing, from like three different stories. I just got to give them an address.”
“Well, you got one now.” Chaz spread his arms, indicating opulence as he walked across the floor. Then he sat down in one of the easy chairs.
“Yeah. Thanks for this.”
“I was just going to say, if it’s ever a problem—I mean, I don’t know what it’s like in this town, as far as the writing biz goes and all . . . but if you’re short, I can set you up.”
“No thanks, Chaz.”
Chaz shot him a sharp glance, then rubbed his hands together and looked around at the apartment, surveying the reno job that he himself had done. “I wasn’t talking about dealing—not a bindle-stiff like you.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“Hotdogs,” he said, as if he’d burned himself happily—the emphasis on hot.
“Uncle Fishy, he’s got this Dogfather thing.”
“Do me a favour.” Mason stood up. “A moratorium on the Chazspeak. I’ve got no clue what you’re trying to say.” He went to find a shirt.
Chaz called after him. “It’s just what I said: my Uncle Fishy has a Dogfather thing.”
“What’s a dogfather thing?” Mason dug into his duffle bag. “And since when do you have an uncle named Fishy?”
“That’s what they call him. He’s a bit simple, but he’s family. Got all sorts of family I never met out here. . .”
Mason tossed clothes in all directions.
“Anyway—Fishy’s got these ideas: one of them’s the Dogfather Hotdog Company. It’s a theme thing, right? And the cart would reflect that—the ‘Dogmobile.’ It’s like a state-of-the-art, pseudomafioso hotdog-stand kind of thing.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“Well, either way, I gave him money for a prototype.”
“You’re kidding me.” Mason pulled on a T-shirt.
“What can I say? It’s his dream. All he needs now is a Dogfather.”
“You mean a hotdog salesman.”
“Think of it as research on the human condition.”
“There’s no way I’m selling hotdogs, Chaz.”
“Then I hope your game gets better.”
Chaz held up his hands in surrender. Mason sat back down.
“What about that book you were writing?”
“Almost finished,” said Mason.
“Hasn’t it been like six years now?”
Chaz looked at him. “So what do you plan to do?
Mason reached for his to-do list. He turned it so Chaz could see. “Any ideas?”
“Number one: shave.”
Mason scraped his fingers down his bearded cheek. Chaz walked to the chair where he’d slung his jacket and took an envelope from the pocket. “Here,” he said, tossing it to Mason.
It was full of twenties. “What’s this for?” For a moment he thought Chaz had remembered his birthday.
“Basics, buddy: food, stuff for the apartment, razors . . . I’m strapping on jets to Montana. See a guy about a can-opener.”
“You’re cracking safes now?”
Chaz just grinned. “I’ll be back on Wednesday. And by the way, the liquor store is . . . ,” but Mason wasn&rsquo...