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Property versus Values

Charlie Demers' new Vancouver heist novel: pinkish noir.

Monkey in the middle; blessed be the peacemakers. Pix: Goonda, Leftover, Zurich

Charles Demers swears that the most important sentence in his new novel Property Values is the formulaic disclaimer that all its characters are fictitious.

“After all, I don’t want to get killed,” he shudders, nervously scanning the coffee house precincts through thick spectacles.

I’m not convinced. The book details a civil war in the Vancouver underworld, but its rival gangs – members of a multi-ethnic smuggling ring versus a posse of protection racketeering bikers – are too broadly comedic to give offense to any actual mobsters. On the other hand, the protagonist, one Scott Clark, seems a tad too hauntingly familiar to be entirely made up.

He’s a wisecracking, 30-ish, slightly plashy white boy, not altogether unlike Demers himself; a potty-mouthed polyglot, equally at home swearing (and getting sworn at) in Punjabi, Cantonese, Québécois or four-letter English – a product, no doubt, of the “Burquitlam” upbringing that he shares with his author. Like Demers, he survived high school as a nerdy outcast, reliant on a threesome of fellow geeks.

But maybe that’s where the similarity ends. As we chat at a coffee house window table, Demers – locally famous as a writer/actor/comedian/radio personality – exchanges waves with a steady stream of Commercial Street passers-by. Scott Clark, on the other hand, seems stuck in extended lonely adolescence. Jobless, with only a pair of fiercely loyal (and equally aimless) high school buddies to befriend him, he’s barely managed to hang onto his parents’ suburban tract house with a mortgage assist from his father-in-law.

But now his marriage has dissolved, his ex- has remarried, there’s a baby on the way, and his erstwhile in-law needs to cash out of the mortgage. So Scott must either quit the only home he’s ever known or else buy out his in-law’s share of the house – a goal that recedes ever further from his reach as Vancouver’s real estate bubble continues to inflate.

His only way out might be to somehow reverse the inexorable uptrend of property prices, at least in his own little corner of Burquitlam. And what better to accomplish that than a gangland-style drive-by shooting? Scott recruits his buddies to stage a mock shoot-up of his own house.

But the ruse draws the unwelcome attention of actual mobsters, aggravating the aforementioned civil war. That draws our trio of slackers into an escalating series of preposterous charades as they try to bluff their way out of trouble.

In the end, they wind up brokering an underworld peace treaty. As a windfall bonus, they earn a brokers’ “commission” so handsome as to solve Scott’s housing woes, not to mention his stymied love life. He seems, at last, on track to finally enter into his long-postponed adulthood.

Improbable, as Scott’s author would be the first to admit, but it’s not entirely implausible. And, anyway, fast-paced, wickedly funny and occasionally touching – a “lean” volume, as are all of Demers’ four previous books, including an early novel. Its 26 chapters average just five pages apiece; readable in an easygoing sitting.

Speedily written, too, by Demers’ account. He pre-sold Property Values to Arsenal Pulp Press with just a quarter of the manuscript in hand and then scurried to write up the rest in time for the publisher’s spring list release.

“I’d already done the research and worked up a detailed outline,” he relates. “So I knew where I had to get in the plot each step of the way, and was able to write a chapter a day. At this stage, I’ve come to enjoy outlining almost more than writing.”

It shows. The book’s storyline is notably richer than its characterizations or descriptions. Even the snappy – mostly deprecatory – dialogue makes it hard, at times, to sort out just who is talking to whom.

Maybe the ornate plottiness is inherent in the genre. Property Values is more of a howdunnit than a whodunit, Demers explains – not so much a crime puzzle as a farcical “heist.” Scott and his besties are good guys masquerading as bad guys so as to get away with non-murder.

Nevertheless, there is – as always with Demers – an earnest political subtext. He is, after all, a coffeehouse leftist. By our mid-morning meeting at J.J. Bean, he’s already on his Nth demitasse of espresso (unlike his character Scott, who prefers decaf London Fog lattes). So he’s all fired up to cite chapter-and-verse from Kapital.

The ongoing property market bubble leaves Scott – and all the rest of us in Vancouver – snagged on the horns of a dilemma, or (in Marxist terms) a “contradiction,” between two opposite, but all too easily conflated, types of “value.”

On the one hand, Demers explains, there’s the “use value” of your home, its personal meaning as the place where “your mother nursed you, your family and friends convened, you lost your virginity, whatever.” But, at the same time, the “exchange value” of housing readily turns your house into your principal capital asset.

So we long to keep our homes and neighbourhoods affordable and intact, but also to realize heady returns on our real estate portfolio. Not for nothing, he points out, does Marxist geographer David Harvey cite property markets as the textbook case of the contradiction between use value and exchange value.

It’s a contradiction that’s susceptible to political solutions, Demers notes. For instance, Onecity Vancouver, of which Demers’ wife, Cara Ng, is a co-founder, offers a detailed prescription: tax the hell out of top-tier housing sales and “flips,” then use the proceeds to build publicly owned rental units in an open-zoned city.

Don’t hold your breath, though; the political will for such measures could be awhile in coming. You might well see the movie version of Property Values sooner; it’s already been optioned by Hollywood, and negotiations are underway for a screenwriting deal.

And, meanwhile, you can buy the book and play out its lightsome scenarios in the privacy and comfort of your own brainpan.

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