I enjoy books set in my own city. They make this place seem more real to me, as though the writer's imagination has somehow amplified it and shown it to me new. I have a small shelf of such books, but most of those are historical.
Stanley Park presents us with modern Vancouver. Our protagonist Jeremy is a young chef, desperately trying to pay the bills with his own idea of what a little bistro restaurant should be: high quality but simple - and avowedly local - fare prepared more by instinct than anything else. Jeremy and his partner (and could have been/should have been beloved) keep the place running on creativity, sweat, and their own sense of adventure. But it's not working out, and the phone calls and letters from various creditors are increasing.
Jeremy's father - known only as The Professor - lives next door to a man who has amassed great wealth by running a multinational chain of high-end coffee emporiums, here known as 'Inferno'. This man's name (in a gesture of authorial burlesque) is Dante. Dante also owns the building where Jeremy's bistro is located, and takes a Faustian interest in Jeremy's future, to the tune of 95% ownership in return for Jeremy's services and instant relief from the mountain of debt. The bankrupt bistro is closed, renamed as Gerriamo's, and renovations are soon underway, guided by Dante's focus groups and highly paid advisors. Partner stomps out, furious and feeling betrayed, doesn't look back.
The Professor is studying the homeless people who live rough in Stanley Park. He likes deep research, and eventually moves in with them, digging out his own little hidden campsite, and learning how to stay dry on rainy nights. Naturally enough, they introduce him to their cuisine: squirrels, pigeons, starlings, ducks (highly prized but very hard to catch), and the occasional raccoon.
So when Jeremy is summoned to visit, it's obvious that these two trajectories are destined to collide. More than that, I won't reveal.
The book is wonderfully written, and he's got the city and the people down pat. The foodies and restaurant critics, the bike couriers drinking beer at the end of their day, the kids from the cooking school just up the street (Jeremy's new trainees), the turbocharged capitalists, the movie producers with 3 cell phones each, and the early morning produce vendors in old Chinatown.
Both the park and the city are evoked as secondary characters. The writing delivers:
Now Jeremy was looking out the window of the Rotterdammer Cafe, half a block down the street from the papered-over windows of Gerriamo's. It was just nightfall, and the cloud cover had split a seam at the horizon. There was now an orange glow from the west. And this light steadily intensified as darkness descended from the east, blooming upward, refracting, illuminating the clouds from beneath, doming out over the park and the city like the light of a great fire.
Yes, wonderful indeed. There's even street protestors, something that seems necessary to the Vancouver psyche. Stanley Park was first published in 2001, and shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize. It combines romance, mystery, satire, a distinct sense of place, and a strong well-paced narrative. I'll read this book again.
And I never knew before that there's a little diner in the back of the Save On Meats store on East Hastings Street, where you can get a fully-loaded burger for $3.99. I went and looked: sure enough, there it is. Hey now!