Don Gillmor isn’t the first author to explore the creeping spiritual malaise of modern life in the West, particularly among middle-class baby boomers and especially those among them who are middle-aged and male. But he is the first Canadian author, that I know of, to turn his own family tragedy — the loss of his younger brother, David, to suicide — into a meditation on suicide itself.
The result, part personal journal, part memoir and part sociological treatise, is as disturbing as it is unusual. This stems in part from the painful, wrenching subject matter. But it’s amplified by Gilmour’s prose style, which is spartan and spare, turning out a book of just 257 pages (Random House Canada, 2018), and his choice of narrative frame. To the River begins as a story of the author’s journey to Whitehorse in 2006, in the half-light of an Arctic summer, to seek an explanation for his brother’s mysterious disappearance on the banks of the Yukon River in December of 2005.
It evolves into a wistful meditation on, not just his brother’s life and struggles, but his own as well — and their generation’s. Though never maudlin, it offers a sepia-toned look back at boyhood for two middle-class Canadian brothers, growing up in Winnipeg in the 1970s, and then a bleak look at what life eventually became; not just for David Gillmor, but others who lived long enough to see their youthful ebullience replaced by fatalism, addiction and despair.
This is not a book for the faint of heart. But it is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in thinking more deeply about the spiritual, psychological and personal consequences of modernity.
In June of 2006, six months after his brother’s disappearance on the banks of the Yukon River, 30 km outside Whitehorse, the author travels to the Far North in search of answers. He arrives in Whitehorse in the near-round-the-clock daylight of the Yukon summer, grief-stricken and sleepless. He tracks down his brother’s last known acquaintances, including his wife, and musicians with whom he’d played music or partied.
As he travels, Don periodically reflects on his childhood with David; their boyhood misadventures and mishaps, their starkly different makeups and inclinations (David was a gifted, natural musician, whereas Don gravitated to sports and books) and their seemingly happy, unfractured home life as children. A portrait of David emerges as happy-go-lucky, accident-prone, artless and wild.
Then, while Don is still in Whitehorse, his body is discovered. David paddles along the Yukon River, sadly retracing the path his brother’s body must have taken in the water, after his death. Don seeks answers from everyone who knew David. Was he still regularly abusing drugs and alcohol at the time of this death? Was he clean and sober, as his widow claims? But the answers he receives are contradictory and inconsistent. Bereft, the author attends a memorial service in Whitehorse, then another with family in Calgary.
Still seeking answers, he begins an exploration of the modern study of suicidology, which consumes the second half of the book. While discovering there are few hard answers in this field, Gillmor does learn this startling statistic: people aged 40 to 59 suffer the highest rate of suicide, more than youths and seniors combined. And among that middle-aged cohort, 80% of those who kill themselves, are men.
The central characters in this story are David and Don Gillmor – two brothers joined by birth, but separated by individual inclination and, as they grew older, their diverging circumstances.
Young David is a musical prodigy, who picks up every instrument and can instantly play it. He’s a free spirit, a reckless and adventurous soul who bridles under the yoke of middle-class conformity. No team sports or Cub Scouts for him. Young Don, by contrast, is an athletic and team-spirited kid, who later will more conventionally fit the mould of middle-class] success.
The author presents this contrast without passing judgement, either on his brother or himself. One can’t avoid the feeling, however, that he feels guilt, rooted in their childhood, when boyish idylls invariably ended with David getting cut, bruised, bitten or stung. “There were the wasp stings that David suffered when I knocked down a nest with a hockey stick. He was bitten in the face by a neighbour’s dog that had never attacked anyone else. On vacation in Vancouver, he walked into a parking meter.”
As the boys grow into men, they drift apart – Don into the world of a successful writer, David settling into an extended childhood of barhopping, jam sessions, drug use and affairs. In mid-life, the brothers all but lose contact and David’s early promise is replaced by disappointment, rootlessness and despair.
Don Gillmor never seeks to portray his brother as a failure, or himself as the better man. Rather, writing as an objective journalist does, he describes. In the latter section of his tale, seeking patterns and insight, the author sketches a series of minor characters, whose tragedies amplify his theme: At the root of modern life is a creeping and insidious malaise, a sense of lost opportunity, that drives many men to despair and, ultimately, suicide.
In his luminous 1987 novel, In The Skin of A Lion, Michael Ondaatje coined the phrase, “meander if you want to get to town.” It was Ondaatje’s way of describing, through metaphor, how we seek, and ultimately find, answers. Gillmor’s approach is similar.
So it’s not until well into this book, in the chapter called Lost Boys, that he broaches the central conundrum of this work. “Sociological studies of boomers aren’t always flattering,” he writes. “We are seen as a group that hasn’t developed the coping mechanisms that previous cohorts have… there is a sense of entitlement that came with our sheer numbers.”
Alongside entitlement come soaring expectations and eventual disappointment and disillusionment. “What will happen when boomers actually get old, when no amount of yoga or surgery or mindfulness exercises can disguise that fact?”
At this stage, in the hands of a less skilled author, the narrative might well be interrupted by a skeptical snort from any reader under 40. Gillmor manages to avoid that by frankly acknowledging the incongruity of mainly white, mainly middle-class, mainly male Canadians emerging as a cohort prone to despair and suicide. Here he begins to tap one of the central political veins of the current era: Though broader living standards around the world have soared over the past 30 years, North America’s middle class has not kept pace.
Even in Canada, where income inequality has been blunted by federal tax policy since as far back as 2007, rising two-parent household incomes mask stagnating male incomes. That stagnation has occurred primarily among working-class men who have seen too many well-paid manufacturing jobs go elsewhere.
Don Gillmor is a masterful prose stylist, at the top of his game. If you enjoy lucid, clear and unvarnished storytelling, sparse, pointed description, and uncompromising honesty, this is the book for you.
If you are interested, as I am, in better understanding the social malaise that underlies the increasingly toxic partisanship and disharmony of our modern culture, read this book. It provides a far more personal take than the many economists who’ve tackled this from a quite different point of view.
But To The River is no less worthwhile for that. It can help bridge the gap between the economic and political — loss of job, loss of opportunity, loss of income, loss of hope — and the spiritual, which causes us to dig deeper and more personally.
It’s not coincidental that among the works Gillmor cites in To The RIver is Iron John, the 1990 book-length essay by the American poet Robert Bly. Bly held that modernity has shorn many men of the mythical ideal of warriorship, which he argues is fundamental to spiritual and emotional wellbeing. One need only consider the modern “incel” movement, with its virulent misogyny, or the growing poison of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements, to perceive the extent of this malaise.
These are not Gillmor’s subject in To The River, of course. But this book does explore, with painstaking sobriety, one very personal corner of the larger tapestry. For that reason alone, it is worth your time.
Five local celebrities will advocate for five locally-authored books in Grey County Reads, a county-wide reading program involving seven Grey County libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey.
Each celebrity will advocate for one Canadian book over five published installments, covering plot, character and theme analyses as well as introductory and summary arguments.
Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest, consider each book and it’s celebrity endorsement. Pick up your own copy of one or more of these books and give us your opinion too. Books are available in limited quantities from your local public library or may be purchased from your favourite local bookstore.
Celebrity installments will be posted to SouthGrey.ca weekly through to February, 2020. Read any or all of the Grey County Reads books and/or read each of the book synopses and celebrity installments to play along. Then vote for your favourite book and community library. Voting begins in February.
After the start of voting, one book will be eliminated weekly until only one book remains. At the end of the contest, three people will be chosen at random, from amongst all who have voted, to win a total of $100 worth of gift certificates from Speaking Volumes Books and Audio. Also, based on votes counted, one community library will win $200 worth of books for their community!
Previous book winners:
2019: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, advocated by Steven Morel.
2018: Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, advocated by Sharon Sinclair.
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Alex Ruff, MP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
Nature's Path Osteopathy and Alternative Healing
Owen Sound Transportation Company
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