Zen of the street

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June 25, 2013

Chase the Dragon 
By Chris Walter
GFY Press, 247 pp, $15.98

Reviewed by Yasuko Thanh

Vancouver punk-band biographer and novelist Chris Walter’s latest book Chase the Dragon centres around Dragon, the protagonist, who earned his nickname for once being “dragged-in” through a doorway. The expression functions as a street metaphor for smoking heroin, “chasing” the smoke as you heat the drug on tinfoil. Throughout the course of the book, a death metal musician and a hit-man with OCD chase Dragon, literally. But Dragon is also being chased by his addictions and a past that’s gaining on him.

Walter’s matter of fact, straight-up style conspires with a darkly comic tone to offer us characters from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) in a manner reminiscent of Margaret Laurence’s strongest characters–they often ought to be despairing, but aren’t. No Pity Parties here.

This tightly plotted page turner is liberally dosed with a kind of Zen of the Street enlightenment. Yet Walter avoids the misstep of romanticising the skids. His gift is the ability to avoid judgement of the marginalised, showing us how circumstances may force people to live in the now. People make do because they must. Like Dragon, Walter has been around. Like Dragon, Walter understands the upshot to having no life is a potentially greater capacity for selflessness.

Walter pokes holes in the sugar-coated and sentimental rescue by a guardian angel of It’s a Wonderful Life when Dragon risks his life to save a drowning boy. It’s not a wonderful life but real life, and any sudden reversals of fortune are sure to remain cosmetic as Dragon is a man who can’t escape what he’s got coming.

Walter presents his characters stripped bare, standing in the cold. He glosses over nothing, giving us the ugliness of people. Like Dickens, he’s a chronicler of place and time, and his hard-earned realism conveys the freedom of having nothing left to lose.

I asked Walter  if he thought his subject matter makes his work hard to read: “‘Gritty’ subject matter is what I do. I’m beginning to hate that adjective, but I rely on black humour to make hard subjects tolerable, enjoyable even. If readers are bombarded with too much ugliness they will lose interest and stop reading. I want them to laugh despite themselves, and they should then feel slightly guilty for having done so. I want to invite strangers into my head and show them all the rooms, even that creepy, unfinished attic. I don’t want to write about easy, feel-good subjects; I want the reader to think.”

To describe the residents of the DTES in a tragic, sentimental, or villifying light is, at the least, in bad artistic taste. At worst, it could be argued, such representations in popular culture are dangerous, perpetrating stereotypes that lead to dangerous stigmatisation and create the kind of climate from which nearly fifty women could be abducted from the DTES.

Walter’s trademark black humour is rapidly earning him cult hero status. A literary outlaw, he never preaches. “Outlaw literature goes against the grain of the established literary industry,” Walter says. “Outlaw literature does not rely on government funding or grants and springs from a desire to speak the truth without fear of offending anyone. Outlaw literature is not subtle. Outlaw literature exists separately from the mainstream. That being said, I never use that term to describe my work. I prefer to call my stuff street lit because it sounds less pretentious. I don’t swing a sword; I sit behind a desk.”

The writing occasionally stumbles, with lines such as, “Like the cop to the doughnut, junkies were drawn to addiction and madness.” But what he brings off makes pointing out such mistakes seem petty. Chase the Dragon is an accomplished feat of realism. Can Lit is lucky to have him.

Catch Chris Walter at one of his island book launches:

Nanaimo: The Cambie, July 5, 8 pm. Copies available for $10 (only at launch).

Esquimalt (Victoria): The Cambie, July 6, 9 pm, with music by The Capital City Stalkers and The Role Models, $10 at the door or $7 advance.

Yasuko Thanh’s short story collection, Floating Like the Dead, was recently nominated for a BC book prize.

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