Mosquitoes & Whisky by Chris Walter
review by Mark McCawley
Chris Walter is an underground literary diamond in the rough, unapologetic, unpolished, hitherto uncut by the Canadian literary establishment. Laced with booze, sex, drug abuse, poverty, despair, low income labour, violence, deviance, criminality, and dark humour — Mosquitoes & Whisky is both Walter’s first title published by his aptly and sardonically named Gofuckyerself Press, in 2001, as well as his first coming-of-age literary memoir (or his initial “autobiographical punkalogue”).
What shocks the reader even more than the absolute urban desolation of circa 1970s Winnipeg — which acts as a microcosm for any small urban prairie city (Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina) — is the post-sixties conservative zeitgeist that pervades Walter’s memoir. It details the author’s struggles to escape his own liberal parents deteriorating marriage that mirrored so many other children’s parents surrounding them. Mosquitoes & Whisky gives candid snapshots of implied or impending physical, emotional, and verbal violence. One review I came across could not imagine how Walter could possibly become so angry.
This is no doubt exactly why one finds such a schism in everyday Canadian life as well as so few depictions of that life in Canadian literature. CanLit publishers have published numerous titles illuminating middle class Canadian life, yet so very few have had the bravery or the courage to publish titles about the Canadian poor, or their families, too often locked into cycles of generational poverty and abuse.
Mosquitoes & Whisky is quite different narrative territory from Walter’s other novels and short story collections set in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and populated by junkies, prostitutes, drug dealers. Mosquitoes & Whisky offers a glimpse into those formative years that would shape Walter the man, the punk, the substance abuser, and eventually the D.I.Y. publisher of over twenty books.
“Sure! No prob,” I said, jumping to my feet. I didn’t know what “pitching in” meant, and I didn’t really care. More crime, no doubt.
We walked down the street and took a left at a run-down laundromat. “This is the place,” said Bill indicating a peeling two-storey structure. Threadbare blankets covered grimy windows, and the front yard was a morass of soot blackened snow and scraggly weeds. A one-eyed cat ducked for cover under the steps. We climbed a flight of ancient stairs to the second floor, and Bill ushered me through a front door booted in countless times. Five or six hungry young men looked up as we entered but lost interest when they saw we weren’t carrying food or beer. Smoking cigarettes and acting decadently bored, they lounged on broken furniture with indolent leisure. The apartment reeked of smelly feet, rancid cooking oil and rotting garbage. On a dusty milk crate, a small black-and-white TV aired the snow channel.
I made myself useful by fooling with the crappy TV until a grainy image of Hogan’s Heroes appeared. Only one guy had cigarettes and he teased us mercilessly with them. He would light one and puff casually, pretending to be oblivious to the slavering nicotine addicts all around him. Finally, when the smoke was half finished, he would act as though he no longer wanted the butt and pass it on. By the time it got to me, all that remained was a glowing, inch-long cherry. I hauled on it greedily, grateful for any harsh smoke at all.
A game of crib started. A big girl with greasy brown hair began frying pancakes. Bill yawned, stretched, got up and left without a word. I wasn’t sure if he was the head honcho here, but all the other residents deferred to him. Nobody even hinted that he should share his cigarettes with us. Butts were carefully re-rolled, smoked down, and then re-rolled a third time. I took a hit from a triple-X cigarette and fell asleep trying to watch The Streets of San Francisco.
Bill woke me late at night by nudging me in the ribs with the toe of his sneaker. Wiping sleep from my eyes I sat up and tried to adjust my eyes to the gloom.
“Whazzup?” I asked dazedly.
“It’s time to go,” whispered Bill.
Still half asleep I followed my new partners in crime into the night. Bill led us through a confusing maze of alleys and parking lots before stopping at the rear door of a Greek restaurant. Now I knew that I’d been correct in assuming that by “pitching in” he meant crime. Given the direct route we’d taken I surmised that the restaurant had been chosen in advance. One of the guys produced a mini-jim, and with a splintering of wood, we were in.
“The cheap bastards didn’t even bother to install a burglar alarm,” sneered Bill.
(Chris Walter, Mosquitoes & Whisky)
Although Chris Walter shares his birthday with Charles Bukowski, and his writing has quite often been compared to that of the late underground poet and author — Walter’s trials and tribulations, his personal and social meltdowns have more in common with the late Steven Jessie Bernstien (I am Secretly an Important Man; and Prison), the writings of Deran Ludd (Sick Burn Cut), or the counter-culture chronicles of Jon Longhi (Rise and Fall of the Third Leg). UG
Chris Walter is a Canadian urban novelist and founder of the independent publishing company GFY Press. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Chris was raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He became involved with drugs at a very early age and was kicked out of many schools before leaving home at fifteen. He worked at a succession of menial jobs, but collected welfare for long stretches (all depicted in Mosquitoes & Whisky). Forming his first punk rock band in 1980, Chris soon realized that he was never going to be a musician and began publishing a punk fanzine. Pages of Rage gave him his first taste of creative writing, but he wouldn’t complete his first novel Beer until he was almost forty. His drug addiction raged out of control after moving to East Vancouver, British Columbia in 1991. He completed several novels but overdosed on heroin and eventually became homeless. Upon rehabilitation in January 2001, he devoted himself to work and to his family. Chris Walter resides in Vancouver with his long-time girlfriend and their son. Despite their dark subject matter, Walter’s books are known for black humour, presented in prose described by critics as “convincing, lively, real, accessible, and wildly entertaining.”