November 4, 2013
Review By Robert McDonald
In Vancouver Special Charles Demers presents a unique portrait of his hometown of Vancouver, where he continues to live and work as a writer and a comedian. In a series of essays that explore the neighbourhoods, people, recent trends, and “sundry civic idiosyncrasies” that for him define Vancouver, Demers offers a personal reading of the city that dips occasionally into the distant past but mainly focuses on the period since Expo ’86, which he considers the city’s “most important experiential borderline.” He writes as someone savvy about “alternative” culture and self-consciously leftist in perspective. Vancouver Special is an urban portrait more in tune with the “hipsters” of South Main and the denizens of the Downtown Eastside than with the owners of “tiny, yapping dogs” – the “pocket rats,” he calls them – that characterize yuppie Yaletown (230).
The book presents Demers’s impressions in thirty-one chapters organized into three broadly defined sections entitled “Neighbourhoods,” “People,” and “Culture,” respectively. For instance, the author speaks knowingly of Commercial Drive, where ethnic diversity, anarchist traditions, and a rich café scene have created a distinctive community marked by such local peculiarities as a “pathological culture of jaywalking” (27). Demers also ruminates sadly on the decline of 4th Avenue from its high tide as a “hippie beacon” to its new life as centre of “hedonistic consumption”: from the Naam to Lululemon (55)! Chinese, South Asian, and black areas of town are featured; Dunbar, Point Grey, and South Granville are not. The satirical insights of the stand-up comedian stand out particularly in the second half of the book where Demers moves from place- and group-specific subjects to more general themes such as “nature,” “pot,” “crime,” “dogs,” and what he calls Vancouver anarchism, or “Vanarchism.” The author’s comments on the drug scene, bus travel, Uncle Fatih’s pizza shop, and gourmet doggy treat shops are funny and instructive.
As in any edgy comedy routine, some of the material is likely to be more effective than others. Vancouver Special is no exception. I particularly liked the insights that Demers presents regarding the importance of the Burrard Street Bridge as a key site in the history of public protest in Vancouver, a history that peaked during the huge peace marches of the 1980s. One of the real strengths of the book is the successful way the author draws on his extensive knowledge of contemporary culture, from restaurants and movies to novels and blogs, to draw readers into interesting and often unfamiliar corners of Vancouver life. For instance, he introduced me to Jen Sookfong Lee’s “dark novel of Chinese Vancouver,” The End of East, and Lee Henderson’s story of the early city, The Man Game. I was impressed as well with his understanding of the role of First Nations peoples and culture in present-day Vancouver. Less compelling is his sense of history, which tends to draw on recycled ethnic stereotypes and to emphasize continuity in race relations rather than to reflect on the fundamental changes that have taken place in the city since its days as an Anglo-dominated outpost of empire. The Vancouver of 2010 is a very different place from the city that spawned race riots in 1907 and expelled its Japanese residents in 1942. I can’t help but comment as well on what I consider to be a lost opportunity for a book entitled Vancouver Special: an exploration of the meaning of that iconic form of house construction that flourished on the city’s east side for a generation starting in the mid-1960s, producing houses marked by simple, utilitarian dimensions and known as “Vancouver Specials.”
Demers’s essays are enhanced by hundreds of bold, striking, and often very effective black-and-white images of Vancouver life by photographer Emmanuel Buenvaije. Designer Derek Barnett has made particularly effective use of double-spread photos to introduce and set the tone for each chapter. Together the writing and design contribute to a book that will be read in the distant future as an important snapshot of life in Vancouver during the era of the Winter Olympics.
By Charles Demers
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009. 271 pp. illus. $24.95 paper