Twenty-five years ago in Vancouver, an underground publishing house threw a party in a mansion in a wealthy neighbourhood of curving streets with no sidewalks, to celebrate a new book. The publishing house was Pulp Press, forerunner of Arsenal Pulp Press. The mansion was the rented communal home of several underpaid editors and other friends of underground publishing; the book was Class Warfare, a collection of stories by D. M. Fraser, who was a writer admired for the beauty of his prose and sought after for the pleasure of his conversation. Fraser wrote his stories on scraps of paper in seedy beer parlours and transcribed them into galleys late at night on the typesetting machine in the office of the underground publishing house, which was situated between two downtown beer parlours and was never locked (during these sojourns Fraser was often accompanied by an unemployed night watchman who used to sleep on the fire escape in his uniform); when the stories were done the galleys appeared on the pasteup table, ready to be printed in the house periodical, a four-page zine called 3-Cent Pulp, where they set a literary standard rarely achieved by other magazines. Fraser’s stories resemble musical riffs more than conventional narrative, and several can be classified as fugues or variations on a theme: in one of them, written in 1973, a hair stylist inquires rhetorically: "Have you known the sweetness of life, do you remember it?" and goes on to ask, "Have you danced to the gentle strains of Pachelbel, in the stilly night? Have you loitered till dawn in waterfront bars, contemplating the mythic sailors who never appear? Have you ever wanted to be an antelope?"
The publisher’s party in the mansion, once the casino supplies and the food had been ordered and arrangements made with the magician, and the invitations printed, came to be known as The Sweetness of Life Party, which was how it was announced on the invitation; and perhaps because the invitation, which was elegantly printed, offered a counterpoint to an epoch remembered now for the Vietnam War and Wounded Knee and Trudeau’s open-necked shirts, and it was winter and it was dull in Vancouver, it became the best-attended literary party in the history of the city, and an event that so excited my sister’s ex-boyfriend, an affable and very tall young man, that he arrived early and already intoxicated, and he passed out in the vestibule while shaking hands with my sister’s new boyfriend and fell flat on the carpet. More people came up the stairs and soon a steady stream of people were trying to get through the door and around my sister’s ex-boyfriend, whose body filled up much of the vestibule; finally several new arrivals helped my sister’s new boyfriend carry her ex-boyfriend down to his car, which was parked against the house, and got him into the back seat and threw a blanket over him.
More people came into the mansion: they could be seen parking in the street and coming along the avenue and they continued coming in until more than four hundred had arrived and no one had left; it seemed impossible that more could enter but more did, another hundred were counted as the rooms and hallways and the two staircases filled up with people jammed side to side and all talking at the same time, as my sister’s ex-boyfriend slept peacefully in the back seat of his car. There was a bar in the kitchen and one in the basement and one upstairs; the roulette table was in the living room, the blackjack tables were upstairs and the poker was in the basement. The poker players were fierce men (where did they come from?) who glared ferociously at their cards and each other; one approached them cautiously, indeed one tried not to approach them at all. When the place was filled up, the movement of people became a glacial tide that surged slowly through the rooms and hallways as the music of Pachelbel’s Canon and Satie’s Gymnopedie washed over them, interspersed with cowboy songs of longing and hard drinking written by some of the underpaid editors who moonlighted as underpaid songwriters; in the end no one was crushed and nothing was stolen. Handsome men in tuxedos lingered on the staircases and along the hallways; they seemed to have materialized from a dream. The magician was Mandrake, who had inspired the comic strip that many of us remembered from childhood: he had been discovered living in retirement in New Westminster and cajoled into coming to the party by Jean Paul Cortane, the house anarchist whose motto was "no revolution but in laughter." Mandrake was an elegant man, somewhat shorter than the comic strip version, but equally gifted in the art of illusion. I met him in the kitchen in a cross-current of bodies and he set my cigarette alight by touching it gracefully with a fingertip from which shot forth yellow flame. He performed in the living room mere inches away from his audience, who were astounded by the manipulation of the rings and the elaborate shower of coloured scarves. At the end of the performance, my brother, who was pressed against the wall under the staircase, heard voices raised in argument coming through the wall behind him, which turned out to be a closet door and which then opened, pressing my brother into the crowd. A man and a woman came out of the closet; they were dishevelled and angry; they snarled at each other and began slowly to move in opposite directions through the crowd: this was the only discordant note at the party named for the sweetness of life. No one wanted to go home. At two in the morning I went outside and walked around the enormous house. Music throbbed into the cold winter night; windows pulsed yellow light into the darkness; the sidewalks were lined with cars parked for miles in both directions: it was closing time at the beer parlours and there had been a rumour that the drinkers in at least one of them were planning to show up: there would be nowhere for them to park, and indeed no crashers appeared at the door of the mansion. My sister’s ex-boyfriend was still in his car, unconscious in the back seat; he would awake without having tasted the sweetness of life. Inside, the Pachelbel played on, and eventually the crowd thinned out and dancers took over the floor. I found Fraser standing in the middle of the kitchen, with a cigarette and a drink, surrounded by friends, triumphant in the sweetness of our being.