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Stanley Park

by Timothy Taylor

Start with Jeremy Papier, chef. He’s in his early thirties, with life coming at him, and fast. His restaurant, The Monkey’s Paw Bistro, is making a name for itself in Vancouver. He’s got ideas, energy, a core of self-assurance. He’s in love. He’s his own man, in cowboy boots, sleep-deprived, a bit of a swaggerer. One thing he hasn’t quite figured out is how to understand what his dad, a self-described “participatory anthropologist” is doing living deep, dark within the groves of Stanley Park. But then he doesn’t have a lot of time to consider the subject.
There are pressures, of course. Jeremy is angry at his father, the way sons are. There are places in Stanley Park the city doesn’t reach, not even with its noise. To these forgetting places Jeremy’s father reaches, seeking out the dispossessed people who live here, their stories. One story in particular pulls him in (one that happens to be true outside the novel). In January of 1953, the skeletons of two children were discovered in the park. Nearby was the axe with which, it was determined, they’d been murdered. They were brothers. Nobody knows who they were or who killed them. As the novel moves toward its core, Jeremy, too, will be drawn into this story and the park that contains it.
There’s guilt, too. A lurking feeling that the professor is in need of saving, and the son should be doing it. Then there’s the woman Jeremy’s in love with, Jules. By mutual agreement they’re holding back, which may be the best thing, but it’s also the worst. Money is a worry, too. Jeremy has a horrible time with money. As in: the more he shuffles through his impressive collection of maxed-out credit cards, the deeper he’s drowning in debt.
Timothy Taylor, it has to be said, writes straight, strong, unadorned prose. He was the first writer to have three of his stories elevated to a single Journey Prize Anthology, a prize he went on to win. He’s well in command of his material. Writes great dialogue. Early on, he sets his scene, gives us Jeremy’s background, and keeps his story, yes, cooking.
Stanley Park is alive with the places and sights, sounds and smells, the psychic character of Vancouver. It thrums with a powerful sense of the city, urban surfaces as well as primal currents. Also food. Chilliwack rock doves in a pear-brandy glaze, Saltspring Island chèvre with toasties. Taylor is as good as the American novelist Jim Harrison when it comes to writing about textures and tangs, colours and sensations.

Dante’s Inferno
In the world of food, you’re either a Crip or a Blood. That’s what Jeremy thinks. Crips are impulsive, experimenters – call themselves artists. Bloods stick to tradition, respect the roots of things, precedents, the established orders. They’re intent on “the veracity of things culinary,” as Jeremy sees it. He himself is full-Blooded: “local bounty” is what you’ll find on his menu, “urban rubber-boot food.” He believes in the soil under his feet and the fruit it bears, and that’s what he means to deliver to those who come to him to eat.
So far, so good.
It’s a surprise and a disappointment when the novel falters. Dante Beale is a part of the problem. He’s the villain of the piece, the devil to whom Jeremy ends up selling his soul. He’s the dark lord of a Starbucks-
esque empire of coffee shops called – in case there was any confusion as to his fiendishness – Inferno. In exchange for saving Jeremy from his creditors, Dante gets to remake the chef and his restaurant according to his own soul-crushingly insensitive way of doing things. From his name on down, Dante is not so much a character as a billboard for the evils of corporatism. Which means he’s altogether too simple a character for a writer of Taylor’s talents.
A good Blood might be the one to testify how, if you let veracity get away from you, it can spoil the whole meal. The deeper Jeremy ventures into Stanley Park, the closer he comes to his father – and to understanding himself. This crossing of distance between father and son in the latter half of the novel is absorbing and affecting. It feels true, too.
But it’s devalued by Dante. In fact, I’m blaming him for tainting Stanley Park as a whole. If, somehow, he could have been shuffled off to one side the novel might have risen to a full-course finish. As it is, Jeremy’s locked in his struggle against Dante and what he so baldly represents, and there’s just no getting around him. His lack of human complexity seems to be contagious, too: Benny, the fierce, pierced, seize-the-day student with whom Jeremy flies into a fling in the first part of the book, becomes in the second a plot contrivance on the way to a series of less than satisfying outcomes that are never really in doubt.