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Zero Avenue by Dietrich Kalteis

Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin

Zero Avenue immerses the reader in the gritty Vancouver punk scene of late 1979, then ventures off into the fringes of pot-farm culture. Its author, Dietrich Kalteis, has a riveting way of capturing the heart and grit of his outlaw characters. Short book. Tall story. These are folks we love to imagine, but may never want to meet. Especially, the antagonists.

Coked-out Marty Sayles runs the Downtown Eastside via his sadistic henchman Zeke Chamas. New to power, Zeke has something to prove. Better not get in his way. One of Marty’s main enterprises involves a farm on Zero Avenue, the corridor that straddles the US-Canada border. Between its corn rows, Marty grows pot plants, tended and harvested by Tucker and Sticky, two rather humorous goons.

Enter Kalteis' protagonists, female punk singer Frankie Del Rey and club manager Johnny Falco. Both are loveable outlaws you can’t help but admire. Johnny manages Falco’s Nest, a club owned by Marty Sales. He owes Marty back rent, and Marty doesn’t care how he gets the money, so fearless Falco decides to rip off the farm on Zero Avenue. With Tucker and Sticky in charge how hard can it be?

A strong fearless woman, Frankie del Rey is a sultry singer who just wants to make it big with her punk band, Waves of Nausea. And she should. The girl’s good. But in the meantime, she’s “muling dexies” for Marty Sales around Vancouver, and sometimes over the border. Carting drugs around Greater Vancouver in her Karmann Ghia is a dangerous occupation: one that could get her busted or worse. But, Marty lets Frankie use the barn out at Zero Avenue as rehearsal space for her band and she needs the cash. Fortunately, catching Marty with a blonde, in the bathroom at Falco’s Nest, relieves Frankie of the burden of having to date Sales. Then she meets sweet Johnny Falco.

What I like about this book: Kalteis is a rebel with style. His prose hits as hard and fast as Zeke Chamas with his blackjack. Sticking right to the story, Kalteis’s prose is so clipped, so nouveau, so detailed, so present tense; it took me a few pages to catch on. Once I did, I was hooked. His participles act like pogo phrases to evoke the punk rock scene. For example, when Johnny goes to survey the pot farm out on Zero Avenue, we find him caught in a dangerous and darkly humorous scene:

“…swatting a sack at the snarling dog, the thing baring teeth like spikes, grabbing hold and tearing the bag wide open, the pot flying out. The blast from a twelve gauge and Johnny felt the rock salt, dropping the other bag and jumping in his Scout. Grabbing his Norton from under the seat, he cranked the window and returned fire, tramping the pedal and slinging gravel off his tires.”

Active, masterful writing. Add to that, the charming Frankie and Johnny; an eagle-eye into the gritty Vancouver punk scene; a smattering of hard-core bikers; a few idiots prone to violence; and a stylish author with a sense of humour (there are catapulting pumpkins) and you’ve got one hell of a read.

Zero Avenue is published by ECW Press.

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