As it appears in the newspaper these days, Vancouver is a strange, divided city. This perception is reinforced in the expansive fiction debut from former tree planter, English teacher, and University of British Columbia MFA grad Shilo Jones.
In Jones’s novel, we encounter a Lotus Land of breathtaking beauty, operating under a peculiar ethos that merges New Age self-help spirituality, health-nut zealotry, Silicon Valley exceptionalism, fevered real-estate speculation, and widespread drug use. It’s a world where Tesla-driving ex-cons eat at hippie-dippy Kitsilano restaurants and construction workers sleep under bridges. A world in which even investment types in the top three per cent of earners find themselves priced out of the market. Against a backdrop of urban chaos and gleaming (often empty) high-rise towers juxtaposed with looming mountains and glittering ocean, Jones’s three protagonists dive into the city’s underworld, thrown together by a property deal in North Vancouver.
Millennial Jasminder Bansal, whose former residence was her Honda, has claimed 24 square feet of her own: the living room at her mother’s rented Knight Street apartment. Broke and hungry, Jasminder gets a job at the shady development firm Marigold Group. Her ambition, however, is to gain celebrity as an investigative journalist. To this end, she begins covertly probing her employer’s connections.
Carl “Blitzo” Reed, a fortysomething drug addict and founder of an environmentally friendly investment company, gets mixed up in the North Van real-estate deal. Wreaking havoc when he can’t stay clean – which is pretty much always – Carl brings a potbellied pig and his wife, the provincial environment minister, along for the ride.
Finally, there is Mark Ward, a young PTSD-afflicted veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who finds himself back in town after a stint in southeast Asia. He’s left behind a wife and daughter in Bangkok and needs to repay a debt to his violent criminal brother. Mark sleeps in a soulless Coal Harbour condo, working hard-hat sites by day, enforcing his brother’s agenda by night, and slowly losing his mind.
On the Up is a dark portrait of a community in the grips of corruption, consumerism, and despair. Jones presents a nuanced picture of the criminal milieu, complete with insomnia, paranoia, grief, and hopelessness. His exploration of hyper-masculinity is equally precise and humane. The male figures in the book are macho thugs who crave comfort and care, aggressors wracked by regret, and vulnerable young men drifting into the arms of trouble. Partly as a result of the inclusion of surprising and complex women characters, the novel’s vivid, cinematic scenes stop short of cliché.
With its action-packed story and crackling dialogue – which manages to be both smart and stylish – On the Up is a fast paced (if a tad overlong) crime novel. But it’s also a sketch of a city in peril, in which the gap between rich and poor widens and the social order unravels – themes that are artfully woven into every twist and turn of the plot. As such, this a crime novel that also makes a political point.