In Liquor and Whores, Chris Walter offers us a tale of Vancouver’s underbelly of derelicts, drunks, and drug addicts. We have, in actuality, two protagonists in this novel: the grizzled, old drunken curmudgeon Olaf, and the young heroin addict/prostitute Becky. Walter spins a tale of their misadventures on skid row, centering on the death of Becky’s pimp Alvin, and Olaf potentially taking the rap for Alvin’s murder. Our primary dramatic question is whether or not Olaf will rot for eternity in prison, yet simultaneously we wonder whether or not the burgeoning relationship between Olaf and Becky will bloom romantically.
Through it all, Walter displays a deep understanding of the downtrodden and the addicted. In essence, this is how life really functions—trying to be human while living a dehumanizing existence. The novel turns out to be a two-pronged bildungsroman, one which follows Olaf’s (re)discovery of the benefits of human companionship, and the other which gives us Becky’s grabbing her own bootstraps in the world of prostitution. Still, the positive note on which the novel finishes is not based on either character getting “well” in the sense of recovering from addiction. Rather, it’s that both Becky and Olaf are able to eke out a relatively happy existence despite the monkeys on their backs.
All in all, the book was a decent read, but it was a bit overwritten in some aspects and a bit underwritten in others. This is not a novel for the squeamish—Walter seems to delight in providing all the icky details of life among drunks, prostitutes and/or drug addicts, and in this regard, Walter paints a compelling picture. The seediness of the setting and the desperate nature of the characters’ lives are vivid and compelling, but despite that, the novel—even though it reads quickly—doesn’t really do anything. The impending sense of doom solely hangs in the air because the plot development is based on relatively minor events rather than outright catastrophe. Moreover, the dialogue is often excessive to the point of being expository.
Trimming the novel by fifty pages would have been much more engrossing, making it leaner and less dependent on an expectation of significant plot twists. Simultaneously, the plot—at the end of the story—is so neat that it’s almost contrived. This stems from a lack of development in terms of character motivation—especially in the peripheral characters who function too liberally as dei ex machina—bringing about the conclusion of the tale. If more time had been spent on how and why the characters—including the protagonists—do the things they do, the novel as a whole would have been much more sophisticated in how all of its pieces fit together. In this sense, that extra fifty pages could have filled out the characters and left a more satisfying effect on the reader. –The Lord Kveldulfr (GYF Press, Punkbooks.com)