Author Tags: Fiction, Law, Poetry
Born in 1953 in Courtenay, Dennis Bolen spent nine years there, and four in Qualicum Beach, before spending most of his teenage years in the Port Alberni area. He attended University of Victoria and obtained a degree in Creative Writing, followed by an M.A. in Creative Writing from UBC. An associate editor of sub-TERRAIN magazine in his spare time, he spent more than 20 years as a parole officer in Vancouver. Bolen's play called Robin's Reasons was performed by Vancouver's Dark Horse Theatre in 1989. His first novel about a world-weary, womanizing parole officer on Vancouver's east-side, Stupid Crimes, appeared in 1992, and was well-received by critics as the second release from the Anvil Press imprint of Brian Kaufman. It's a rare crime novel that doesn't glorify crime or criminals. Although it explores the sadistic criminality of a psycho-rapist, it's also a humourous and down-to-earth novel about the moralistic pressures of being another man's keeper.
Bolen continued to explore dark themes in his historical novel about the Holocaust entitled Stand in Hell (Random House, 1995). It follows a man who hits the road in the United States to contact a suspected Nazi war criminal in order to uncover his own grandfather's true identity.
Bolen's third novel, and second novel about parole officer Barry Delta, Krekshuns (Random House 1997 $18.95), describes 'an emotional journey most men would be frightened to take' when a beautiful and intelligent hooker enters his life as one of his parolees. Barry Delta must save her from a predator within the Correctional Services. "Krekshuns is about sex offenders, power and the abuse of that power in the workplace," Bolen told Damian Inwood of The Province. Amid the ne'er-do-wells and nutcases in Barry Delta's world, there remains the constant, gnawing sense of compassion within the parole officer that even his cynicism can't control or eliminate. "Think of being in charge of at least 30 of your fellow earth creatures," says narrator Barry Delta in Stupid Crimes, "with the responsibilty and power to observe them, make judgements and commit them to detention all based on your own instinct and sense of what's right."
The release of Krekshuns was followed by publication of shorter fiction in Gas Tank & Other Stories (Anvil, 1998 $14.95).
Not to be confused with Tom Cruise and Top Gun, Barry Delta makes his third appearance as a reluctant good guy in Toy Gun (Anvil, 2005), another amalgam of bleak humour and compassionate urges. Bolen's protagonist Barry Delta does for the job of parole officer in Vancouver what Da Vinci has done for the job of coroner, without commercial breaks.
Also set in the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, Kaspoit! (Anvil, 2009) documents a city overrun with gangland crime. The short stories in Anticipated Results (Arsenal, 2011) follow Baby Boomers that are 'chronic underachievers at work and love whose malaise is tempered by booze and cars'. Black Liquor (Caitlin 2013) is his first collection of poetry.
Stupid Crimes (Anvil, 1992)
Stand in Hell (Random House, 1995)
Krekshuns (Random House 1997)
Gas Tank & Other Stories (Anvil, 1998)
Toy Gun (Anvil, 2005)
Kaspoit! (Anvil, 2009)
Anticipated Results (Arsenal, 2011) 978-1-55152-400-9 $18.95
Black Liquor (Caitlin Press 2013) $16.95 Poetry.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2013] "Fiction" "Law"
Toy Gun (2005)
by Sheila Munro
Given the cover of Dennis E. Bolen’s Toy Gun (Anvil $26), a stark image of a handgun against an orange background, most readers will be surprised to discover this novel is more psychological study and moral exploration than hard-boiled crime thriller.
As the third instalment in Bolen’s trilogy about federal parole officer Barry Delta, following Stupid Crimes (1992) and Krekshuns (1997), it focuses more on the inner machinations of its characters than on crimes committed.
A self-confessed ‘burn out’ eyeing early retirement, bad boy Barry Delta drinks too much (way too much), cheats on his wife, has trouble curbing his glib tongue, and is given to bouts of self-deception and self-loathing in about equal measure. His work in the underworld of addiction, prostitution and street crime has left him jaded and exhausted.
Bolen, a former parole officer himself, deftly weaves the stories of Barry Delta’s life and loves (somehow women find him irresistible and more than one of them wants to have his baby), his boozy afternoons at the Yale Hotel, and the desperate escapades of the parolees on his caseload.
We witness the crazed excitement of a coke addict preparing to commit a robbery, the humiliation of a prostitute being tossed out of a car and called a whore. This is a country of the damned where ugly behaviour, brutal crimes, lies and deceptions prevail. Bolen renders this world with such visceral intensity that you can almost feel the drug cravings, the hangovers, the adrenalin rush that comes with violence.
Everything is convincing, nothing is glossed over. Obviously Bolen knows this territory from the inside out.
Ultimately Toy Gun is a novel of redemption, but first the worse has to happen so redemption can begin. Just about everything that can go wrong for Barry does. Disaster piles upon disaster as his personal and professional life spiral out of control. He finally bottoms out to find himself a mentally and physically broken man. There’s something contrived about the plot in this regard, and of course the love of a good woman (the waitress at the Yale, no less) has much to do with his own redemption.
Meanwhile Barry wonders if even one of his clients can be saved. In so many cases the damage done to them in childhood is irrevocable. When the foul-mouthed, drugged-out prostitute Chantal declares, “I’m always going to be on the streets,” he is unable to contradict her.
To keep going, Barry Delta has to believe that if even one former inmate doesn’t re-offend, then his job will have been worthwhile. In grappling with this theme of redemption, increasingly the novel is marred by pious lectures about the need for love and forgiveness. The point is well taken but this is telling, not showing. We want to draw our own conclusions.
In Toy Gun Bolen takes us for a bracing ride, lacing sordid truths with humour and wit, mixing horror with the banality of everyday life, reflecting back to us our own messed-up lives. He forces us to look at things we don’t want to look at, jarring us out of middle class complacency, and in doing so he reveals the narrowness of the worlds we live inside.
Sheila Munro lives in Comox where she is following her non-fiction book with a novel-in-progress.
Kaspoit! (Anvil Press $20)
from John Moore
Kaspoit!—that’s the noise made by opening a beer can, a crisp flatulence so familiar it ought to be incorporated into O Canada, a sound that’s usually evocative of barbecues, beach parties or the end of a hard day.
But after imbibing Dennis Bolen’s Kaspoit! you’ll never pop another Canadian or Blue without cringing. In his latest and darkest tale set among Vancouver’s criminal underclass, Bolen, who has five previous books of gritty fiction under his belt, uses the sound to punctuate some of the most squalid dialogue ever put on paper, rendered all the more horrific by its very banality.
In the novel, a Fraser Valley pig farm owned by a not-too-bright character named Friendly serves as a private social club for assorted Lower Mainland gangsters, who stand around bonfires popping beers and talking business while waiting for Friendly to return with a carload of compliant or desperate women scooped from the sidewalks of the Downtown Eastside.
As a result of these debauches, women sometimes succumb to excesses of alcohol and drugs or to the bizarre sexual proclivities of some of the members. As host and hog-butcher to the underworld, Friendly’s job is to clean up the mess.
Of course this plot will ring alarm bells with anyone who has followed the case of William Pickton, now our nation’s most notorious serial killer.
The women are not the main focus of the plot; they are not even characters as such—an aspect of the novel that has already caused some critics to be concerned with making sure their politically correct jock-straps are in place. But they’re missing the point.
After William Pickton was arrested, media and activist groups had a field day speculating about why women were going missing from the Downtown Eastside for years before the Vancouver Police or RCMP appeared to notice. That’s the question Bolen tries to answer in Kaspoit!
It’s a novel about perception and agendas, about how what we see, and what we think we know, are determined by what we’re looking for.
In the novel, local RCMP are well aware of the pig farm’s role as an ad hoc social club for the scum of Vancouver, who refer to the cops contemptuously as “Ruckmumps” from the acronym of their insignia. In practice, police forces routinely permit certain bars or improvised social clubs where known criminals gather to continue to operate because, in the face of undermanned detachments and tight budgets, it’s a cost-effective way of keeping track of the bad guys.
Bolen, a career veteran of the Canadian justice system after more than twenty years as a federal parole officer, knows how the system operates, what its priorities are, and how blurred the line between tolerance and collusion can become. The novel implies that even if Pickton’s pig farm had been under 24/7 surveillance, it would ultimately have made no difference because the cops would have been clocking the comings and goings of gangsters, not doing a head-count of women who incidentally came and went—or didn’t.
In three earlier novels featuring his parole-officer alter ego, Barry Delta—Stupid Crimes (Anvil Press), Krekshuns (Random House Canada) and Toy Gun (Anvil Press)—Bolen developed a signature style, a mix of Raymond Chandler wit and Trailer Park Boys goofiness you can’t quite call gallows-humour (since Canada repealed capital punishment), but a sort of squalid slapstick that makes the antics of his criminal characters as pathetically funny as they are scary.
Literary and dramatic arts traditionally create a critical distance between the audience and horrific events that makes it possible for us to face our worst fears and experience a cathartic emotional resolution. Humour is one way of making the unbearable bearable; we laugh at the moronic screw-ups of Trailer Park Boys because we grew up knowing guys like Julian, Ricky and Bubbles and secretly remember that the messes they generated were anything but funny at the time.
As Raymond Chandler once said of the life on the mean streets he chronicled, “It reads better than it lives.”
In Kaspoit! the criminals are no brighter than the low-lifes who populate Bolen’s Barry Delta novels, but the humour is of the Hell’s Dark Roast variety as the various characters—including a couple of visiting hit-men from the Montreal mob, a senior RCMP officer and an ambitious Eurasian cocktail waitress—attempt to exploit a power vacuum created by a police sting back east (Google Project Colisee) that temporarily upsets the apple-cart of organized crime.
Abandoning the breezy cynical narrative commentary of the Barry Delta novels, here Bolen restricts himself to the more challenging toolkit of the dramatist and scriptwriter: descriptive action and dialogue carry the plot alone, with none of the gratuitous cheats of the “psychological novel” or the interminable self-indulgent narrative commentary that is such a soporific feature of so many Canadian novels produced by holders of MFAs in creative writing.
Bolen’s stripped-to-the-frame, dialogue-driven story will be as shocking to CanLit-conditioned sensibilities as a slap in the face with a bag of cold nails, but it is a brilliant exercise in minimalism that shows how much can be evoked with just a few lines of authentic dialogue and ‘narrative’ that amounts to little more than stage direction.
A novel written almost entirely in dialogue plays on the irresistible human temptation to eavesdrop and to continue to listen, with guilty shadenfreude, even when what we hear appalls us.
In his quirky film, My Dinner with Andre, director Louis Malle demonstrated the seductiveness of dialogue in a two-hour film consisting of two old friends talking over dinner. Philip Roth achieved a similar effect in a dull, somewhat plotless novel that consisted of nothing but the dialogue between a man and his mistress in bed.
In Kaspoit!, Dennis Bolen has created a terrifying and suspenseful thriller out of the kind of table talk you could overhear in certain clubs and bars no more than a twenty minute drive from your house. 9781897535059
Review by John Moore, in Squamish, who remains one of British Columbia’s most original and un-self-censored book reviewers and fiction writers.
Anticipated Results (2011)
Drinking and sinking, Dennis Bolen’s generation have left the Age of Aquarius for the Age of Estrangement
by Jeremy Twigg
The unnamed narrator in Dennis E. Bolen’s short story collection Anticipated Results (Arsenal $18.95) is the Everyman of the lost Baby Boomer generation. He has a decent job and works hard at maintaining a relationship with his daughter, who we don’t meet until halfway through the book, and he gets on well with women.
His culinary abilities and vocabulary (“perspicacious”) are above-average. But he’s unsatisfied. His friends come across as deadbeats, many of them struggling with addiction. He looks for meaning in ill-fated dinner parties with guests that are under-appreciative, emotionally unavailable or just plain rude.
Boomers are typically thought of as being an entitled generation, but the people we meet in Bolen’s stories are the ones that fell through the cracks, the ones that didn’t take over academic institutions or rise to the top of the corporate world. They’re smart, but not successful. They haven’t made it to the upper class, so they try to console themselves with the aforementioned parties and their impressive command of the English language.
The narrator’s description of military generals in charge of the Vietnam War is a case in point: “They create this awful Moloch—literally a young-man-eating machine—that became such an uber-monster, such a mental-physical-emotional-social object of utter hatred and polarization, that it caused a political schism in the collective world consciousness such that our hair and our music and our attitudes became picayune concerns in the overall miasma.”
Clearly, someone is trying too hard to impress the guests.
I’ve always found Bolen’s past as a parole officer interesting—something that set him apart from other authors. This detail is missing from the publisher’s bio for Anticipated Results, his seventh work of fiction since 1992. Perhaps Bolen is tired of the association. Regardless, his writing has a toughness that comes across as having been gleaned from first-hand experience.
The opening story entitled “Paul’s Car” is a good example. One of the book’s secondary characters, Paul, has suffered a car accident (he’s a cab driver) that leaves him unable to move inside his vehicle, which is slowly sinking into the chilly Fraser River. “A shiver seized him from anus to scalp and nearly blackened his vision.” You can’t mess with a sentence like that.
Coming near the end of the collection, there’s a 1950s-era story about the narrator’s childhood in a small Vancouver Island town. He’s burdened with a boozing father who can’t hold down a steady job and a mother who becomes collateral damage. When the nine-year-old narrator proudly displays his new wiener stick—a device he’s made from a customized coat-hanger—at the dinner table, his Dad wraps it around the kid’s neck.
That scene leads to an epiphany. “As Dad was wrapping that wire around my neck, he was a jealous man. For years, we’d been competing for Mom’s attention.” The boy runs away into the woods and, although his status as outcast is temporary, his psyche is forever shaped by the wiener stick incident. Adding insult to injury, the boy is prejudged by a cottage owner who catches him stealing peanut butter and jam sandwiches. “The injustice of it became the start of my darkness, the portal to a black will inside my soul.” Despite the narrator being declared emotionally scarred, Dennis Bolen’s Everyman Boomer consistently comes across as well-intentioned, as someone who cares about others.
We get to know Bolen’s narrator in bits and pieces, culminating in a degree of intimacy that is simultaneously disturbing and welcome. But it’s ultimately Paul, the most hopeless drunk, who bookends the collection. Paul symbolizes lost members of the Boomer generation: Left for dead in a ditch, abandoned, hanging sideways in a sunken car.
A graduate of UBC Creative Writing, Jeremy Twigg works in public relations in Vancouver.