Dead Girls is Nancy Lee's first book, published in 2002. It is a collection of stories, which are interlinked through the chilling detail that an average man, a dentist actually, has killed well over a dozen young women and buried them in his backyard. The stories appear to be largely set in the late 1990s in Vancouver. The Age is her more recent novel, set in Vancouver but in 1984, so basically pre-gentrification. The stories here revolve almost entirely around misfits and outcasts, with two explicitly following young prostitutes, one who presumably ended up in the backyard and one who avoided that fate (and there is a third story about a homeless woman who actually has an encounter with the dentist but who wisely turns down his offer of a ride in his car to "check out her teeth" among other things). Given this focus, most of the stories are set in and around the Downtown East Side, which has changed the least, despite Vancouver's explosive transformation into a very expensive world city. The DTES is pretty much the same today as it was in the late 1990s as it was in the 1980s. In that sense, Dead Girls feels just as relevant today as it was 15 years ago. Before I get too deep into the review, I'll just note that Dead Girls worked for me much better than The Age, though there was one story "Rollie and Adele" that I found too implausible. Many of the stories were sad, and there are a couple that I wouldn't reread because they were too painful (cut too close), but on the whole I thought this was an interesting collection.
One thing stands out right away is that this is not a collection focused around the immigrant experience. Actually let me take that back, the thing that comes across very quickly is that there is a lot of sex in these stories, generally bad, desperate sex and/or inappropriate sex in virtually every story.* In some cases, this is "underage" sex, and I couldn't but help but think about the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine film Kids with all the drugs and sex. That movie and these stories sort of blur together in my head, and I read the stories as if all these misadventures were happening to white kids, unless it was otherwise specified in the text. (For instance, the sisters in "Sisters" are half-Native.) That said, the race or ethnicity of virtually all of the characters is left blank, so the reader can impose his or her mental picture on them. It is certainly possible that the unnamed female narrator of "Associated Press" is Asian, but the pieces can still fit together if she was white. The only story that felt like it was about immigrants to Canada was "Sally, in Parts" where the dying father is a strict disciplinarian and the mother seems somewhat browbeaten. This still doesn't mean that the family is Asian, however.
From this point on, I'll have to go a bit deeper into some of the stories, and that may involve SPOILERS, so be warned.
One writing trick that Lee employs is to reverse events, particularly with regards to the serial-killing dentist, Dr. Coombs. In the first story in the collection, "Associated Press," not only have the police taken the dentist into custody, but the unnamed narrator has been put on the jury that will try the case (with many, many gruesome photos of the crime scene), but that at the last minute, he pleads guilty, and the story goes off a different tangent. In "East," two angry young women end up driving in a van to the prison to yell at the walls and to taunt the dentist, as if he could hear them or care much about what people thought of him. But after this, the stories move back in time. Adele from "Rollie and Adele" remembers Coombs trying to pick her up. And Nita in "Sisters" is working the streets of Vancouver before Coombs's arrest and, by the end of the story, has vanished without a trace, probably ending up in the infamous backyard.
What is a bit eerie about these stories is that at least some of them were written before Robert Pickton was arrested in early 2002 and the bodies of many women were found in the backyard. It is at least feasible that Nancy Lee was more clued in than the average person to the disappearance of prostitutes from the DTES and came up with the idea of writing about a serial killer, though making him a much more respectable man who lived in Vancouver itself (not on a pig farm in Port Coquitlam), and then perhaps adding the details about the burial in the backyard (to some of the stories) after the gruesome details began turning up in the papers. If in fact, she had this all in mind from the beginning, even before the story broke, then that is really creepy.
"Valentines" is definitely the story with the closest kinship to Kids. The story features teenagers, between 14 and 15, who in a sense are too eager to grow up and do grown up things, namely have sex and abuse a wide variety of substances. They are hanging out at one kid's home, while his parents are away on an extended trip. They get up to nothing good, though, in the end, the other boy doesn't actually stage a break-in (for the insurance money) but he does engage in some petty theft during the visit. It was well-written but depressing.
The next story "Dead Girls" is actually heart-breaking, as a couple is trying to cope with their daughter, who has run away from home. To support her drug habit, she sells her body. She almost never checks in with her parents, who naturally assume the worst when the bodies are found in Dr. Coombs's backyard. The mother more or less shuts down, going into early mourning and withdrawing from society. However, they are not contacted by the police, who have a list of names of the victims, though of course in most cases Coombs would not have known these girls' and women's real names. The mother stalks out the last known locations where her daughter was seen, and eventually believes that she catches sight of her having sex with a john. It isn't entirely clear if this is the case, but she is able to sort of restart her life, though still living with the pain of a child who has gone completely off the rails. While Carol Shields's Unless didn't involve street prostitution, there was still plenty of parental pain going on, and it is tough going reading this, while at the same time thinking, that could possibly be me some day, given that some children make bad choices regardless of what they were taught or how much they were loved. It's hard to imaging re-reading this, as it was fairly painful. "Sisters" with the one sister who was groomed into prostitution and the other one who resisted temptation is also a tough read, but "Dead Girls" is specifically from the point of view of the parents, so it does hit closer to home.
"East" may be the most interesting story of the bunch with two women, driving manically through Vancouver, trying to escape bad relationships. It's sort of interesting how the motivating force sort of switches between Jemma and Annie. At some point along the way, Annie just wants to go home, but Jemma keeps driving. There is just a hint of Thelma and Louise in this story.
The one story I didn't particularly care for was "Rollie and Adele," though I did like the shout-out to the Fraser bus (#8),** which I did take home on occasion, especially if I was starting from Science World. The first time through the story, I read the "After" section as if Rollie had fallen so hard for Adele, a homeless woman he brought into his life, that he ultimately took to drugs and lost everything, then they were happy together, living in some kind of a squat or skid row housing. After I read the entire story, I went back to the beginning, and it most likely is not that catastrophic. He has fallen in love, but it doesn't necessarily follow that he got turned onto drugs (and it is not actually clear if Adele is a user or not) and, indeed, it seems that he still has his tattoo shop, so things are probably going all right for him, or rather the two of them. Anyway, there were a number of improbable aspects to this story, starting with most tattoo parlors have several inkers working there. Even in the case of a sole proprietorship, he would still be likely to rent out the equipment to another artist while he wasn't working. Number two, at the heart of sounding like a total heartless bastard, contrary to some of those ads that say we are all one paycheck away from being homeless, most long-term homeless who are on the streets, either have mental/behavioural challenges or have drug addiction issues. So it is more than a little implausible that Adele is brought into the tattoo parlor and doesn't steal anything or start shooting up in the back room, and, in fact, becomes helpful to Rollie, arranging appointments and sweeping up around the shop. While it is certainly not uncommon for men to experience "white knight syndrome," and I have had flashes of it from time to time, hence this poem, it is unusual for the man then to completely reject all advances from the woman he saved. Sure the first couple of nights, he doesn't want to pressure his damsel into sex, but if she keeps pressing, as Adele does, then it would simply be rude to refuse. The heart of the problem seems to be that Rollie has limited self-respect and no belief that he would be attractive to women, particularly a woman as beautiful as Adele. He has put her on a very high pedestal, despite how they met. Adele starts to despair, as she is sure Rollie will get tired of keeping her around the shop if they don't become a couple. I would say in general, this already strains credibility. Rollie has had his shop downtown for a while (unstated but probably on Cordova or Powell in the DTES) and most of the female clients are young prostitutes. It would not at all be unlikely for them to offer something in trade for their tats, even if he didn't take them up on the offer, so it's just hard to imagine someone who had survived in this environment to be so precious about a homeless woman and not think he was good enough for her. Be that as it may, if we accept this, he eventually effectively pushes her away and tells a regular customer he should date Adele. In short order, he comes back to the shop to find the customer and Adele screwing in the tattoo chair. As horrified as he is, Rollie really sees her as she is, sagging skin and missing some back teeth. He goes away unnoticed and returns later as if nothing had happened. There is then a gap in the narrative, so we loop back around to "Later," where Rollie has overcome his reluctance to sleep with Adele and they are now a couple, at minimum common law, but perhaps actually married. It all worked out beautifully after all, like a kinky O. Henry story. The exact line is "He tells himself there are many unlikely roads to happiness." Needless to say, this was too outside the range of normal standards of behaviour for me to swallow the story, even though I generally like happy stories, particularly if they have a somewhat ironic twist.
On the whole, this is a collection worth checking out, particularly if you have fond memories of the somewhat seedier side of Vancouver, before it got all shiny and expensive (and overrun with too many people with more money than you...). Just be aware that there is quite a bit of heartbreak lurking in these pages. I'm not aware of what Lee has been working on lately, but it should be worth checking out whenever it lands.
* I don't know enough about Nancy Lee to determine how close she was to these characters. Did she hang out with street kids growing up in Vancouver? Did she live a bit (or a lot) on the wild side? Or is she using her imagination to enter the lives of these characters? While I haven't read it yet, Evelyn Lau's Fresh Girls and Other Stories also is focused on youth gone "wrong," in this case the focus is on teenaged prostitutes living on the street and doing drugs (with the causal chain a bit unclear in terms of what came first). However, Lau actually lived this life for quite some time, before managing to literally write her way out of it.
** Though a minor point of correction is that on the Fraser bus, you hit Kingsway and then Broadway, whereas Lee has it the other way around. I suppose it is possible the route was different when she was growing up.