At two key points in Chris Walter’s new novel ,Chase the Dragon, a character stumbles upon misplaced drugs. Such discoveries might seem implausible, but the massively tattooed writer assures readers that these things happen. “It’s happened to me several times, even since I cleaned up,” he says, swigging a de-alcoholized Beck’s. “I found what looked like a baggie of meth when I was coming back from an AA meeting,” he remembers. “I threw it away in fright—I picked it up and looked at it and went, 'Aauuugh!' And rode away on my bike.”
The Straight is sitting at Walter’s dinner table in his apartment off the Drive. He’s offered me a beer with actual alcohol, but the Straight is a cheap drunk, and is joining him in a near-beer, which, in honesty, isn’t bad. A framed vintage Ramones T-shirt looks down on the table, where sits a stack of 500 11 x 17 sheets, each with four identical pages of Chase the Dragon, which Walter’s partner, photographer and fellow punk enthusiast Jen Dodds, has just brought home from the print shop where she works. After Walter checks them, they’ll be sent to a binder to be cut and glued together, but GFY Press is still mostly a home-based business.
Despite its cast of junkies and musicians, and Winnipeg and Vancouver locations, much about Chase the Dragon feels different from Walter’s other books. These include 2006’s East Van, which interweaves the story of a down-and-out dope fiend on the way to rehab with that of a yuppie real-estate developer only just starting on the path of addiction; his memoir about his Winnipeg youth, I Was a Punk Before You Were a Punk; and band bios of Personality Crisis, the Dayglo Abortions, and SNFU.
Chase the Dragon—Walter’s 22nd book, which he describes as his best work of fiction since East Van—is more of a crime story. It features, for instance, a chase-revenge narrative involving a hapless addict nicknamed Dragon, who finds himself on the run from both a gun-wielding hit man and a grudge-bearing death-metal musician/debt collector.
“I might have been influenced by Tony O’Neill,” Walter cops, referencing a fellow former musician and addict turned writer and band biographer. “I’m a fan of his, and a lot of his books have a crime factor to them—they have bad guys and stuff, whereas my books usually don’t. Well, they have bad guys, but they don’t run around with guns. I don’t read a lot of crime books unless there’s a real underside to it,” he explains, “like with O’Neill. His people are all such lowlifes, even his good guys.” He pauses. “It’s like in my books—but, I mean, I like lowlifes!”
Despite the possible genre appeal of his new book, Walter doesn’t see himself consciously strategizing to get to “the next level”. Still, he’s aware that something is likely to break eventually. It nearly happened this year, with a proposed TV treatment of his book Langside, which, he says, is “a gritty urban drama involving aboriginal gangs and the pressure of life in the ’hood”, named for a street in Winnipeg where Walter once lived.
“I came really close to the TV series. CBC sat on it for three months, and I got a sweet cheque for the option. It always seems like there’s something big about to happen. But with all the bookstores and record stores closing, I’m happy if I can just keep writing books and bringing a few dollars in.”
Chase the Dragon also differs from some of Walter’s other work in that it has a wider range of characters—including a gay couple and a community-minded matriarch. B.C. author Teresa McWhirter helped with one character’s Québécois accent, while Walter faked the brogue of bike-club leader Fatty McDougal with help from the writings of Irvine Welsh, whom he also admires.
While Welsh has never interacted with Walter, he’s been “blurbed”, alongside James Frey, on the back of past GFY releases. “I’ve had people ask me about the backs of my books,” the writer laughs. “ ‘Wow, did the New York Times really say that you were the greatest writer alive?’ ” Usually the joke blurbs stand out, but one neat detail about Chase the Dragon is that Tony O’Neill actually contributed the blurb he’s credited with, comparing Walter to Donald Goines and James Fogle—writers who “write blistering truths with one foot planted firmly in the gutter.” Both O’Neill and Walter have appeared in chapbooks put out by Matthew Firth’s Black Bile Press, which is likely how O’Neill became aware of his fellow traveller.
People attentive to Vancouver politics will recognize various issues raised in the novel, most notably the ongoing gentrification of the Downtown Eastside. Given that in an early draft, Save on Meats was identified as “Save Less Meats” until Walter’s editors uniformly balked, it seems fair to ask how he feels about the business, which has been the recent target of antipoverty activists.
“Y’know what, I’m kind of on the fence about it. A lot of their stuff is affordable to people in the neighbourhood—you can go in there and get a really cheap sandwich. Otherwise, along that strip, they have a lot of fancy restaurants now, and there’s no way people in the area can afford them. But I think it’s bullshit that for $1.50 or $3 you can buy these tokens for a sandwich, so people who don’t want to contribute to addicts’ drug habits can buy them” to give panhandlers. “For that, he’s getting praise in the papers, but really, what he’s doing is selling sandwiches! It’s just a very clever way to tap into the city’s—”
“—guilt,” Dodds pitches in from the kitchen, where she’s preparing dinner. “But haven’t they provided kitchens for people, to come and cook, because so many people around there just have hot plates?”
“They’re doing more than a lot of other places, which do nothing,” Walter admits. “I’m not going to make them out to be philanthropists or anything, but—”
“They’re better than the Earls that’s moving in around the corner,” finishes Dodds.
“Shit,” Walter laughs. “There goes the neighbourhood!”