“Jimmy Pattison’s motto—I’ve read his autobiography and his unauthorized biography—is ‘You gotta wanna,’ ” crime novelist Fraser Nixon tells the Straight in a conspiratorial tone. We’re ensconced in the back booth of a dimly lit bar on South Granville, and the nattily dressed Nixon is overflowing with enthusiasm for our city’s richest man. “Can you use that in the profile? ‘You gotta wanna’? So I can clip it out and give it to Jimmy.” (I’m a woman of my word.)
It’s no surprise Nixon admires the self-made billionaire business magnate. Nixon’s first book, 2011’s Arthur Ellis Award–nominated The Man Who Killed, was published after he recognized former Douglas & McIntyre publisher Scott McIntyre as a regular at the restaurant in the Vancouver hotel where he worked, walked straight up to him, and handed him his manuscript. And the story behind his sophomore novel, the sleazily amusing caper Straight to the Head, follows the same gumptious path: “I knocked at the door and basically cold-called Arsenal Pulp Press like a door-to-door literary salesman,” he tells me. “So far it’s worked. It’s the only way I know how to sell a book.”
Unlike Nixon’s first novel, a noir set in 1920s Montreal, Straight to the Head takes place in Vancouver in 1983 and 1986. A clever, stylish, and funny tale of stolen drugs, crooked cops, and a torrid summer romance between a rich guy from the West Side and smart girl from Chinatown, the book is like the love child of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero—which are set in balmy Florida and Los Angeles, respectively. But Nixon chose Vancouver as his backdrop because “there was no book like this set in Vancouver before”—and, he jokes, “you can shoot the movie of it here. Except, in a weird way you can’t. Because it’s all been knocked down, it’s all condo towers.”
The Vancouver of Nixon’s novel is a landscape both familiar and yet hazily distant. “We didn’t know it, but Vancouver in 1983 was at the end of its old life as a logging town, a railway town, a pioneer boomtown,” he says of the era. Straight to the Head captures that past in obsessive detail. From the BowMac sign in “the baking hellscape of West Broadway’s concrete desert” to the Venus Theatre and steaks at Trader Vic’s, and encounters with Howard Hughes, a young Michael Bublé, and, of course, Jimmy Pattison, it’s a paean to a city that a man like Nixon, who was mostly in his single digits when the story takes place, might not remember in fine detail. But still, he insists it’s not a sentimental book. “This isn’t any false nostalgia for a finer Vancouver, because it sucked in a lot of ways. You couldn’t get a decent bagel, food was terrible, most of downtown was parking lots… But it was more itself.”
To research the book’s setting, Nixon did a lot of digging at UBC, SFU, and the VPL; his research for ’80s Vancouver vernacular was less academic. “We all talk in the cadence of our time, like the Dude would,” he says. “And that, believe it or not, was another great touchstone, something like The Big Lebowski. And you know, Robert Altman movies from the ’70s. The Long Goodbye. It was supposed to be this loose, West Coast feel where no matter how tense it got, it didn’t matter.” And that laid-back vibe permeates the novel. “It’s a caper, but it’s got this slack—to have a joint, to have a beach bonfire—because that’s just the way we operate out here.”
Today, as his second novel publishes, Nixon works as a process server, cycling around Vancouver ambushing people with legal documents. “You don’t want to see me,” he says, chuckling, “because it means you’re going to court.” The rest of Nixon’s work history is equally idiosyncratic; he’s toiled as everything from a hotel night manager to a newspaper-ad salesman, and prides himself on working for a living and not relying on grants. “I consider a Canada Council grant to be like a scratch-and-win,” he says. “I don’t have an MFA—I only know how to work and knock on a door and try to sell.” His next novel—which he’s already finished—is inspired by his previous job as a dock manager for a seaplane company on Salt Spring. “It takes place on the San Juan Islands. It’s called No Naked Flame, which is a warning when you’re in the presence of aviation fuel—it can explode if you don’t treat it correctly,” he explains. “And it’s sexy and crazy and weird. Lots of black magic. People believing in covens and that sort of stuff.”
And for Nixon, magic is never that far away. “Writing is magic. If you approach it in the right spirit, it’s the most fun you can have for basically free,” he informs me. An example of that fun? “I put myself in Straight to the Head, as one of the kids talking to Expo Ernie,” he says. “You know who bought Expo Ernie? At Maynards, for $30,000? Jimmy fucking Pattison!”
Straight to the Head launches at 7 p.m. on Thursday (April 14) at Hot Art Wet City.