His debut novel, Notice (Nightwood 2020) takes place during the summer of 2017 in Vancouver where economic imperatives are making space less and less accessible to lower-income individuals. The rental crisis is intensifying, ravenous real estate development is thriving and there is a province-wide forest fire emergency, which blankets the city in smoke. The protagonist, Dylan Levett, is a recent university graduate being "renovicted" from his rent-controlled apartment, the central point of view of the story. It's a Kafkaesque story about a man caught in the gears of a bureaucracy, a spiral-down, bad-to-worse kind of story and it holds up a funhouse mirror to Vancouver.
Dream Peripheries (General Delivery 2015)
Notice (Nightwood 2020) $21.95 987-0-88971-384-0
Notice by Dustin Cole (Nightwood Editions $19.95)
If you combined Franz Kafka, George Orwell (whose first book was Down and Out in London and Paris) and Hunter S. Thompson, and you had ‘em write a realistic depiction of life in the rental jungle of over-priced Vancouver in the early 21st century, you’d get Dustin Cole and his shockingly intense debut novel Notice.
We follow the blow-by-blow plight of a highly articulate dishwasher named Dylan Levett, someone who formerly studied history at university, as he fights to maintain his near-decade-long tenancy in Bellevue Heights, a (fictitious) apartment complex situated across the street from the historic Lee Building at Main and Broadway.
Despite having a formidable intelligence, Levett works in the dish pit of a low-brow Gastown eatery, The Wild Rose, a raucous joint where ex-Edmonton Oilers fans congregate to drink too much and cheer on Connor McDavid.
Facing a bogus renoviction notice, our everyman protagonist decides to not accept the landlord’s offer of $2,500 to leave and goes to arbitration with the help of a housing rights activist. They take the Skytrain to darkest Burnaby to find an obscure government office that will semi-reluctantly process a defence of his civil rights with a Byzantine trail of paperwork and e-formalities.
Our eyes and ears for a prolonged tour of urban desolation in the summer of 2017 is a man whose bank account is running on empty. His electrical power has been cut off by BC Hydro because he owes them $200 (the amount includes his reconnection fee). He lives in the dark. Why should a man pay if he suspects his efforts to fight the landlord’s purge of himself and others is going to fail anyway?
Reduced to walking everywhere between the Bellevue building and Gastown, he conveys to us the details of sidewalk life amid poverty and despair. Driving through that area does not do justice to the darkness that thrives in the shadows of those concrete, gentrified towers that have arisen for the relatively well-to-do around Science World.
Dustin Cole’s depictions of the soggy bazaar of East Hastings does not conform to the great Canadian maxim, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. He is not likely to be invited to give a presentation to the Vancouver City Planning Commission any time soon.
“Gaunt putty-coloured people slipping and clapping around in flip-flops. Inundated plush purses, plastic stiletto shoes, scabby bruised thighs, hollow faces from the living crypt. A man in a wheelchair sat at the foot of a curb while a thin man in a black straw fedora and flared women’s jeans worked at pushing his chair up a curb cut. Sidewalk dense with black marketeers and the vice-laden who supported this commerce.
“Someone huddled behind two open umbrellas arranged as a lean-to. The orange tip of a hypodermic rose above the edge and a dirty hand popped off the neon safety guard, plunged the needle back down below the lip of the shelter. ‘Can I owe you six bucks?’ someone said, a strange inverted offer.”
Also a stifled musician and a seemingly hapless bachelor, Dylan buys a deluxe pellet gun at Canadian Tire to commit Rodenticide. He flushes the dead mice down his toilet. An abrasive encounter with a tough cookie named Blade Girl has unfairly gained him a bad rep with her, even though he’s actually a loyal friend by nature.
Levett is derisive when it comes to tech yuppie drones, foreign capital, “craft beer bullshit” and affluent white trash, but he has maintained some lasting relationships with the likes of Jim, another long-term Bellevue tenant. “They were friends, dope-smoking buddies, but the relationship had cooled since the Christmas season when Levett had accidentally lit Jim’s beard on fire while they were high on mushrooms.”
He perseveres with his case, a man not without principles, but life in a Limboland gulag of increasingly video-surveillanced poverty crushes his optimism. There are some pain-ridden outbursts. He was not born a loser and yet the world around him conspires to crush him. Blade Girl has mobilized others to denounce him as a violating woman beater.
Eventually there is a two-and-a-half hour renoviction hearing. An expert testifies on behalf of Mr. Levett about the landlord’s bogus claim that a rotted beam in the ground floor cannot be repaired successfully without the need to displace Mr. Levett from his third-floor domicile, as well as others who have already been intimidated and coerced to vacate. The corporate owners since 1980s have undertaken work without permits, etc. But is it true that Mr. Levett at one time did consent to negotiate a fair price for his departure and, thus, in principle was therefore accepting of the landlord’s proposal?
Madame Arbitrator might as well be the Grand Inquisitor.
It’s not giving too much away to say Levett will win his case but ultimately he will lose the biscuit. It’s a tragedy, like King Lear, that cannot be derailed from the get-go. “If he wanted to escape, he would have to fly to the moon.” We go along for the downward ride, fascinated rather than appalled, due entirely to the quality of the writing.
Take notice of Notice. Rare B.C. literature mavens could tell you this stunning cri de coeur is more in the tradition of the acutely sensitive D.M. Fraser and the chronically estranged Malcolm Lowry. Both courted despair, discovering genius and alcohol were a deadly cocktail.
Most readers don’t like to encounter words they don’t know. But some do. Dustin Cole caters to the latter category. Strabismic. Suspired. Weft. Corbel. Knurled. Caduceus. Plagal. A chain-link fence is topped with “a musical staff of barbed wire.” A hooker trots down an alley in “precipitous heels.” This combo of extreme articulation with depictions of poverty makes Notice a work of friction.
The novel is touted as “a bad-to-worse, spiral-down story about an ornery man caught between the gears of gentrification and renoviction” but it’s also a delightful dance piece of wordsmithing, an uplifting performance piece.
When Dustin Cole first started writing for the Ormsby Review a few years back, it was immediately obvious that the Alberta-born Cole, raised in the wee town of High Level in remote northwestern Alberta, had the potential to be the literary equivalent to Alphonso Davies.
(Now described as the 17th most valuable soccer player on the planet, the Alberta-raised Alphonso Davies had a very brief tenure with the Vancouver Whitecaps before he vaulted into the top tier with Bayern-Munich to make $5.5 million per season. Meanwhile, Dustin Cole is about to skedaddle back to more affordable Edmonton.)