#620 Vancouver beyond the postcards
September 28th, 2019
by Sam Wiebe (editor)
Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2018
$23.95 / 9781617756597
Reviewed by Paul Falardeau
Vancouver is a beautiful city, one you might expect is a good place to find some world-class, city-adjacent hikes, the best smoked salmon, and some of the finest sinsemilla you could ever hope to smoke. It’s no wonder that Canada’s westernmost major city — and its residents — have a reputation for being chill, very chill. So, it may seem like a strange move for a Brooklyn publisher, Akashic, to centre their latest collection of noir short stories in the beautiful, perhaps even idyllic, city by the sea. Yet Vancouver Noir is set to reveal to the world something we may naively want to ignore: the city, in addition to its beautiful facade — indeed, often in service to that facade — has a darker world that swirls and intermingles with the shiny splendour of its postcard skylines.
What is noir? You would be forgiven for not knowing exactly. Images of hard-boiled detectives and Chicago gangster types come to mind or, maybe, Frank Miller’s bleak, harrowing Sin City series. “Purists will award the term to the work of half a dozen white guys who wrote in the early 1900s,” explains the introduction to Vancouver Noir, “others throw it around as a loose synonym for mystery.” However, editor Sam Wiebe quickly nails down a better definition, or at least one that this book operates on: “Noir is bad shit happening to people much like ourselves.” It is working-class tragedy; the kind of story that takes place when we wander too far off the path of our normal lives and see what kind of shadows we can cast.
Vancouver, then, is a perfect location for noir stories. Yes, the Vancouver of Vancouver Noir is the city you think you know: breathtaking vistas of mountain and sea giving way to hazes of pot smoke (it seems like most stories in this collection at least mention the good green stuff), craft beer, sushi, and lots of yoga moms. A city of glass. The green gem of Canada. But the city is not just a tourist hub for outdoor thrill-seekers and weekend naturalists or hipsters looking for farm-to-table dining.
Locals will know that the postcard images come few and far between. First off, it rains a lot here, which seems like a good foundation for stories about depravity and death. The sparkling skyscrapers of downtown are a hotbed for white collar crime. Vancouver is a core for shady real estate deals, foreign investment, and tech startups looking for cash. The Downtown Eastside, on the other hand, is home to Canada’s largest homeless population, living a few blocks from the industrial waterfront amongst the decay of the once-booming resource economy.
While cannabis legalization in Canada may seem novel to some, it has been the de facto way of life in the city for years. Legalization, some say, has caused more problems by making herb harder to find and more expensive, turning low-income users to street dealers and lowering access to a balm that is sorely needed for the opioid crisis sweeping all parts of the city.
Despite the ubiquitous totem poles, carving, and other Indigenous art, Vancouver is a colonial city that stands on truly stolen land (no treaties were ever signed). Racialized violence against Indigenous folks, pushed out of their traditional lands in every part of British Columbia, is only one of the outcomes of continued colonial rule. Vancouver is the centre of the continued tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the urban ground zero where the powerful and the violent find victims amongst the most vulnerable members of our society. Though gentrification and a truly staggering price of living affects everyone, it is people of colour and Indigenous and queer folks who are most marginalized and maligned.
Maybe the real gritty truth is that every city has its opportunity for noir (as Akashic’s vast back catalogue seems to suggest); but Vancouver certainly fits the bill. This collection, then, serves as a tour of Vancouver’s dark and light places. Noir covers most of the city’s main neighbourhoods and employs some of its finest writers to do so.
Carleigh Baker, whose recent collection of short stories, Bad Endings, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust, paints an unflinching picture of boredom in the suburbia of South Cambie in “The Midden.” With subtle undertones of anti-colonialism and a knack for catching the grit of things, Baker’s story of a friendship between a woman escaping a bad relationship and a skater kid escaping a bad homelife slowly blooms. Its characters quickly grab the reader, each feels genuine and alive, and the story remains heartwarming even with its inevitable, grim conclusion looming over it. It’s daring to take a slow pace in a short story, but Baker really seems to have mastered it as the pair break into abandoned houses to spray paint. The creeping spectres of abuse and gentrification loom as the story is pulled to its conclusion, while Baker never gives too much away.
Another standout is Sheena Kamal’s “Eight Game-Changing tips on Public Speaking, set across town in Vancouver’s financial district. Kamal writes a revenge fantasy with an acidic sarcasm and enough humbly self-effacing notes to keep her protagonist feeling justified in her actions. To be fair, have we not all had a boss we daydreamed about taking to task? Hers seems especially worthy of retribution: a well-heeled but largely unpleasant egocentric who has just narrowly escaped being outed by the Panama Papers. Kamal reminds us that Vancouver was the base for many of the companies fingered in the Panama scandal and that these dodgy folks deserve to pay. It’s easy to find villainous a man who has never given his employees a raise and who, it seems, has yet to muster up a “willingness to search for the mythical clitoris.” Kamal’s writing is witty and engaging, uniquely framed as a list of tips for public speaking, the kind an executive assistant might send their employer before a big presentation. Here though, she has embellished the list with her own revelations about the consequences of greedy behaviour and slowly savours her own machinations to undo the terrible tax planner.
Some of Vancouver Noir’s villains are less obvious, like the West Vancouver housewives of Robin Spano’s gripping “The Perfect Playgroup.” To what ends will a mother go to give her child the perfect life? What happens when you get in their way?
Other stories don’t really trade in villains. Good and bad are ever-changing and undeniably grey in Sam Wiebe’s “Wonderful Life,” in which the sons of two ex-cops try to locate the missing elderly father of one of them before he does something horrible through the lens of his dementia. What follows is a journey through the two families’ pasts and the ever-changing bohemia of Commercial Drive.
Also here also is Yasuko Thanh, who gives us a taste of the downtown track in “Burned,” a scene that will remind readers of her recent, probing memoir, Mistakes to Run With, or at least convince them to pick it up. Don English also has a look at the lives of sex workers in Vancouver and the violence they endure, this time taking place in the infamously shady beachfront of Crab Park. The story’s title, ” Stitches,” is an evocative clue towards its content.
Women aren’t always victims though, and Linda L. Richards’ “Terminal City” is a pulp tale about a female assassin that takes all the right twists and turns to get readers’ blood pumping. You really couldn’t ask for a better story to draw readers in a the start of a collection as our heroine tumbles through a rabbit hole of murder, love, and sickness, all set against the affluent backdrop of Vancouver’s West End.
Women take action is “Bottom Dollar” too. Here Dietrich Kalties does a good job of transplanting the Italian heavies of “The Godfather” into the streets of Strathcona. A plan to turn the tables on a violent mobster spins into the start of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde tale. Moreover, Kalties is convincing in the philosophy that crime may in fact pay. At the very least it seems to hold more allure than bowing and grovelling to the super rich folks that are taking over Vancouver, one gentrified neighbourhood at a time.
Wiebe suggests “Land and violence, sex and community” as the themes of the collection. He’s not wrong. Each story introduces a new neighbourhood, but the real estate crisis, the soaring cost of living, and gentrification seem to be the ghosts that haunt almost ever story. If there are a lot of other bad things happening, the perpetrators seem to justify it as the cost of getting ahead in a capitalist, colonial city. Thanh’s prostitutes do unspeakable acts to clients for money and several stories mention the hard push of neighbourhood degradation and renovictions as being in the back of many protagonists’ minds. The decaying houses of South Cambie are the setting for Baker’s quiet tragedy and the upstart DJs of Nathan Ripley’s “The Landecker Party” are all too well aware of the real estate opportunity they uncover when a drug deal goes wrong.
In Vancouver, old territory means nothing. Indigenous folks are constantly reminded of this fact, but so too are the aging beat cops and their sons in “Wonderful Life,” and the old-time mobsters trying to stop Greektown, the beachy old Kitsakano enclave, from slipping through their fingers in “The One Who Walks With a Limp,” a standout piece by Nick Mamatas.
Ultimately, this collection is not just for those interested in Vancouver or in noir. The stories here are really entertaining and will keep you reading. Vancouver is “a city in flux,” writes Weibe, “a city struggling to redefine itself. A city under siege.” While both the good and bad exist here, modern noir thrives on that grey. In the meantime, its writers are excellent tour guides and Vancouver Noir is a page-turner you won’t want to put down.
Paul Falardeau is a poet, essayist, brewer and most recently, an English teacher, living in Vancouver, a city on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, whom he offers respect and gratitude. He is a graduate of University of the Fraser Valley and Simon Fraser University. He has published in Pacific Rim Review of Books, subTerrain, and Cascadia Review, and he contributed an essay to Making Waves: Reading B.C. and Pacific Northwest Literature (Anvil Press, 2010).
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