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A gritty engagement with the past Add to ...

Lee Henderson's first novel, The Man Game, has been released to great reviews. (Full disclosure: I blurbed the book. So I clearly admire it.) Concerning itself with a fictitious type of naked wrestling between loggers, the book may seem at first pass utterly fanciful.

But one of the things that may intrigue Vancouver readers about the book is its enthusiastically gritty engagement with this city's early history. The fictitious sport is our sport. And it plays out in a carefully detailed historical setting, one of mud, racism, opium and the rampant cutting of first growth.

Last week, I asked Mr. Henderson to walk me through the streets where the novel is set, and we talked about that history and our remaining connection to it.

In some senses, the connection seems thin. We wear our history lightly in this town, often averting our eyes in embarrassment, or even shame. The harvester ethic doesn't fit well with environmental sensibilities and the race relations were not what we would like to be known for now (two anti-Chinese race riots in Vancouver in 1887 and 1907, for example).

But Mr. Henderson's novel does not avert its eyes. In fact, the book grips our roots as if history really matters. As Mr. Henderson himself says, as we're walking through Chinatown, "I've often wondered if cities aren't like people in that those first five years are critical to personality."

I tend to agree in the sense that geography, immigration and indigenous populations forge, at their point of intersection, the rough, original shape of a place. In Mr. Henderson's rendering of early Vancouver, that original shape is rough-hewn, ad hoc and charged with the tensions of the frontier: economic, sexual, racial.

As we walk down Pender Street just west of Main, Mr. Henderson describes what that block would have looked like in the day. Brothels on one side of the road. A vibrant opium industry. A Chinatown built on stilts to hold it above the mud of the False Creek tidal flats. And, of course, streets teeming with people bent on making a fortune.

"They thought they'd barely scratch the resource supply in their lifetimes," he says, as we turn into Main and head toward Crab Park. "They thought they'd all be millionaires."

That attitude was connected to a popular view of nature as a thing to be kept at bay. And the idea that we remain connected to this history may seem counterintuitive to Vancouverites today, who generally don't look at the North Shore mountains and visualize them as log booms.

But Mr. Henderson's work traces some threads of continuity nevertheless. One of these is a tendency in Vancouver's earliest days for constant renovation and redesign. Since the city had to shift physically in response to where the jobbers were, structures were not built to last, but to be replaced or moved.

"You had to build quickly and not necessarily consider if this was the final design," Mr. Henderson explains.

Anybody who has watched the Vancouver skyline over the course of the past few decades will understand what it means for a city to steadily reinvent itself and turn under its architectural objects. Anyone who got wet in the leaky-condo crisis will relate to Mr. Henderson's assessment that in Vancouver "impermanence has often been part of the design." A bonanza attitude toward harvestable timber resources has, in this parallel, only been replaced by a bonanza attitude toward the sloshing pools of international real-estate investment capital.

But Vancouver has also had some more positive inheritances from that 19th-century resource-town swagger, to which Mr. Henderson's novel is affectionately tuned. He was drawn here in the first place by what he describes as "an anarchistic, libertarian, off-the-grid, sometimes just weird sensibility." This is a free-spirited, creative Vancouver. A place where, at least at the time Mr. Henderson decided to move here, "the artists and writers and musicians seemed to be better."

With the Olympics coming, Mr. Henderson worries that Vancouver may lose this "Cascadian personality" in its efforts to ape other high-gloss international cities. "You know, we're just not Dubai."

And if Vancouver is going to become that kind of place, with the ever more insane rents that come with the honour, he wonders, "Why would artists choose to live here and not just move to Toronto, which is at least bigger and busier?"

On tour recently in Toronto, Mr. Henderson launched a mini-tirade from behind the podium about precisely this risk in Vancouver - that it will, through its late postmodern boom, eradicate the frontier ethic of which the city's artists have been (strangely, some may say) the truest spiritual heirs.

Paradoxical, no doubt. But the novel is a weaving of just such material. And when I ask him about the Toronto tirade, Mr. Henderson doesn't acknowledge it straight on. He looks to the harbour instead, and then impressively extemporizes: "Well, you see, there are certain people from Toronto that I don't want to move here. So I tend not to be too positive about it when I'm travelling there."

Timothy Taylor is a novelist

and journalist based in Vancouver.

His latest book is the novel

Story House.

 

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