Hard lives, slow deaths of North American cities

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As Vancouver's profile as a brand-newish city surges in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics, some bemoan our lack of history, even while we let the evidence of it atrophy and sputter.

That I ended up reading B.C. author George Fetherling's Jericho in the same week that George Bush callously stood by as black New Orleans drowned, and as the cruelly-suburban Christy Clarke (a former B.C. provincial cabinet minister) ludicrously threw her hat into the ring in the race to become the next mayor of Vancouver — a city that comes together to decide, every few years, what exactly are the best ways to pretend the Downtown Eastside doesn't exist — was mostly a matter of coincidence. It was, however, a coincidence that speaks to the great relevance of the novel's exploration of the hard lives and slow deaths of North American cities.

The culmination of America's racist and malignant neglect of The City in the flooding of an historic, African-American cultural centre is only the clearest example of the suburbanization of politics on this continent; witness the ways in which the grief surrounding the September 11 attacks on Manhattan migrated to the “Heartland,” with a map of Red and Blue America outlining the ways in which sinful Big City Folk weren't sufficiently jingoistic in mourning the assault on the metropolitan Twin Towers.

While this process has played out to our South, Vancouver has stepped forward to become the Canadian civic archetype. Just as our city literally stands-in for the Great American burgs in the movies filmed in “Hollywood North,” our Shaughnessy and Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods have crept up and replaced Westmount and East Montréal as the residential urban centres best epitomizing growing social discrepancies and widening gaps in the geography of class in Canada.

Quietly, at the same time, Ikea has constructed an enormous edifice in the space where the suburb of Coquitlam creeps closer to Surrey, not a fifteen minute drive from where realtors in Port Moody promise “Whistler-style living” in Newport Village.

Jericho tells the story of The City — one and many, in fact: Windsor, Ontario; Detroit, Michigan; biblical Jericho; and the nexus surrounding Vancouver's Main and Hastings — privileging the narratives of the marginalized who, paradoxically, give it its life and flavour during the ascendance, and go down with the ship as it crumbles.

Told in the voices of three narrators (Bishop, a pot-growing eccentric who may be a genius or a dangerous nut; Theresa, a redundant, obnoxious social worker without half the faculties she imagines herself to be in possession of; Bethany, a sensitive Alberta girl becoming more intelligent and more sure of herself as she deals with the fallout of a series of mistakes), Fetherling's story is rich, textured, funny and captivating, exploring the space where people invent cities, and vice versa. Also, through Bethany's vocation in a funeral parlour, the author problematizes the finality of death, examining the crucial role of the act of dying in defining the life of an individual or, by extension, a neighbourhood.

The three narrators, motivated by lust, curiosity, fatherlessness and megalomania, drive far into British Columbia's rural Northern interior in a stolen Canada Post truck which they've painted the color of vomit. Bishop — like Bethany's boss at the funeral parlour, building a brilliantly-detailed cityscape in which to run his model trains — has taken it upon himself to create a city out of nothing, with an economy based on marijuana cultivation, in this respect not unlike the Vancouver that they've escaped. These broad brushstrokes of plot provided by the story allow for each of the narrators to engage in serious (or hugely flawed and stunted) introspection and reflection, outlining the unseen and unspoken interconnections of urban life, migration, work, recreation and crime.

As Vancouver's profile as a brand-newish city surges in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics — friends back from working in New York tell me that all the hip, Sex-and-the-City types have beautiful Vancouver on the radar for their vacations from Manhattan — some bemoan our lack of history, even while we let the evidence of it atrophy and sputter.

The story of the Downtown Eastside is hemmed in by gorgeous, gated Gastown condominiums — the advance guard of the legions that the Larry and Gordon Campbells, the Glen and Christy Clark(e)s, all but ordered out to erase Vancouver's realities as they brought the Olympic honchos in to evaluate our suitability to play host to corporate sponsors and doped athletes (so long as we deal with our drug problem). In this context, a loving and intelligent novel like Fetherling's Jericho is a welcome historical primer and real-time commentary for anyone seeking out The City as it is.

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