Reviewed by Tom Sandborn
From Saturday's Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Feb. 05, 2010 12:33PM EST Last updated on Friday, Feb. 05, 2010 5:46PM EST
By Charles Demers
Arsenal Pulp, 272 pages, $24.95
A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future
By Larry Campbell, Neil Boyd and Lori Culbert
GreyStone, 320 pages, $24.95
If Vancouver doesn't make you a little crazy with grief or laughter, you probably aren't paying enough attention. Canada's major Pacific port is getting a lot of attention these days, what with its lucrative globalized trade, the imminent arrival of the Olympic circus and the vertiginous excitement of a real-estate market on crack. Add to this the frequent shootouts as the city's drug gangs settle territorial disputes with AK-47s, and the quotidian comedy of errors as politicians from all three levels of government tap-dance and manoeuvre around the city's baffling problems, and you have an urban landscape guaranteed to appall and fascinate.
Vancouver is any writer's dream subject, whether the genre is poetry, such as Malcolm Lowry's searing visions of hell on Hastings Street, the novel, such as Timothy Taylor's comic masterpiece Stanley Park, urban history, such as the magisterial and entertaining works of Chuck Davis, or volumes of earnest social analysis, produced by the cubic yard during the city's tumultuous history. Here are two new contributions to the city's canon.
Vancouver Special is an entertaining and intelligent collection of essays by Charles Demers, a multitalented local stand-up comic, TV personality and social critic. (He's also recently published a debut novel, The Prescription Errors.) Demers writes with impressive erudition and wit about everything from the distinctive and graceless Vancouver residential design that gives the book its title to the city's approaches to racism, pot, anarchism, rich people and the homeless. There are, of course, a few passages in which his attempt to find the comic element in essentially serious subject matter comes off as strained, but these are mercifully few.
Demers also provides a wonderful guide to Vancouver's many neighbourhoods, a more pungent and nuanced account than you would get from the chamber of commerce, but a loving and accurate view of the city's dizzying diversity nonetheless. His portrait of Commercial Drive, one of the city's most interesting bohemian enclaves and his current home, is particularly vivid, but he is also impressive on Chinatown, the gay village along Davie Street and the Little India neighbourhood around Main and 49th. Readers who loved Stan Persky's classic book of Vancouver essays, Buddy's, or Bruce Serafin's Stardust, will find Demers's blend of acute observation, wit, intelligent reflection and lapidary prose similarly attractive.
One of the most moving chapters in Vancouver Special addresses the ongoing tragedy of the city's Downtown Eastside. The chapter opens with an account of a CBC-TV special that featured haggard drug addicts, the exploitative pharmacists who prey on them, pathetic anecdotes about petty crime and an interview with a hard-boiled cop who has grown old and cynical. The kicker to this otherwise unremarkable account, Demers tells us, is that the special ran six decades ago. Some urban nightmares seem to go on forever.
While Demers takes on the whole city, former Vancouver mayor and now Liberal Senator Larry Campbell, criminologist Neil Boyd and journalist Lori Culbert focus on the Downtown Eastside and its poverty and addiction-ravaged streets in A Thousand Dreams. They bring a rich body of varied experience to bear, and the book's lucid prose – most probably the work of Culbert, an award-winning Vancouver Sun writer – makes their policy suggestions and the storytelling that supports them equally accessible. Some of their stories horrify, especially the account of police and public indifference long after neighbourhood activists suspected a serial killer was preying on sex-trade workers in Vancouver.
The otherwise impressively fair-minded and persuasive work is marred by a few puzzling omissions that seem hard to explain as anything other than lapses into professional or political spite. Campbell's left-wing opponents within his own caucus during his term as mayor, for example, receive little narrative attention, and the explosive fracturing of his majority – which might have been able to do more to address the tragedy of the Downtown Eastside absent his heavy-handed leadership – does not, perhaps unsurprisingly, get the attention it deserves. And the work of Simon Fraser University researcher (and Neil Boyd colleague) John Lowman, which brilliantly documents the lethal stupidity of Canadian prostitution law, is mentioned only once, and parenthetically at that.
Most of the book's suggestions for reform – saner prostitution and drug policies, adequate social housing and more effective outreach to the vulnerable – are sound and have been heard before. What remains to be seen is whether we can muster the political will to make them work. If that long-deferred goal is finally achieved, books like these will have played a role in making it possible. In the meantime, no one in Vancouver, or the nation, should miss these two remarkable and valuable works.
Tom Sandborn is a writer and social-justice activist who has lived in Vancouver since 1967.