Life on Masterpiece Avenue

Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne memorializes D.M. Fraser, a tiny ancient man at the age of twenty-six, who wrote sentences that made you want to take him (and them) home with you.

On a summer afternoon in 1972, in Vancouver during a heat wave, D.M. Fraser, a long-time graduate student and unpublished fiction writer, collapsed on the sidewalk while carrying a case of Old Style beer home from the liquor store. A case of beer in those days consisted of twelve bottles, a heavy weight for someone of his physique, for he was a tiny ancient man even at the young age of twenty-six.

When he came to, as he reported to his friends in the Cecil beer parlour, he was lying on a stretcher in an ambulance, and the case of Old Style beer was, to his great relief, lying on the floor of the ambulance beside his shoes. He left the hospital a few days later with a supply of nitroglycerine tablets, and his shoes and his case of beer were restored to him, intact, as he reported to his friends in the Cecil, a group of untested editors and unpublished writers associated, as he was, with a newly formed publishing house of no fixed address calling itself Pulp Press. From then on, D.M. Fraser, who soon became known for his brilliant fiction, held ambulance drivers in the highest regard, as he did taxi drivers, bus drivers, street poets—and all angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection.

D.M. Fraser lived for years in a dark, illegal suite in a remote neighbourhood ignored by literature and loved by the Rhododendron League, shaded by elm trees and filled with the sound of lawn mowers on Sundays—and forever illuminated in the minds of his admirers by his presence there in the early seventies, where he conceived “Masterpiece Avenue,” a narrative of monumental living written against and away from his own sombre refuge and the life of student poverty that he never escaped—even when his student life had been over for many years and he had relocated to a railway flat above a junk store on Main Street, assisted by friends and followers, worriers about his health and admirers of his generous learned talk, people who wished to sustain him in life as long as possible, lenders of funds and good dope, professional drivers and hefters of books in boxes and his collection of years of The New Yorker. Fraser’s sentences were what made you want to take him (and them) home with you (as many did, from time to time):

Janey and Ambrose and Spiffy and I live on Masterpiece Avenue, in the historic site; we have had invitations to move elsewhere, generous offers, but we have always refused them. It is a thing of some consequence, after all, to be where we are, to have stayed here. In times of restlessness, we take pleasure in this; we stumble trustfully through the barren opulent rooms, fondling woodwork, plaster, chimney tile, groping the scabrous face of history.

From their vantage point in the house on Masterpiece Avenue, the so-called historic site, the narrator and his friends, whose lives during a seven-year tenancy have achieved “the texture of fine sculpture,” are able to observe and to ruminate upon the decaying remnants of the past:

There are stories, which we prefer to disregard, of old iniquity in our domain: heathen practices, crimes of passion, conspiracies against the state . . . From time to time, we observe, through the wreckage of our hedge, elderly ladies in poetic headgear standing in an attitude which may be reverence, in front of the Plaque. We seldom complain: the Plaque is attached securely to the gatepost, on the outermost surface; it is thus exterior to us, and incidental.

“Masterpiece Avenue” was published in January 1973, in the fourth issue of 3¢ Pulp, a four-page zine published by Pulp Press Book Publishers, the “underground” literary press (now Arsenal Pulp Press) that had moved from the Cecil beer parlour into a decrepit three-storey walk-up at 44 West Pender Street (still standing, as of this writing), across the alley from the Marble Arch beer parlour, and which included D.M. Fraser in its editorial collective. Fraser, inspired, he said, by the move into official premises, had worked up notes for “Masterpiece Avenue” in the cafés nearby, where a veal cutlet with industrial-strength potatoes and gravy ran to $1.85: the Richard Pender, the White Rose, the Smile; and in the Marble Arch beer parlour, where a glass of beer had gone from a quarter to fifty cents in only a few months; he composed his final drafts late at night, directly on the photo-typesetting machine (which displayed only a single line of text at a time in a tiny LED window) in the publishing office. In the morning someone else would take the light-tight cassette out of the typesetting machine and process the paper galley and hang it up to dry.

Half a dozen such stories appeared in this way over the next few months, and constituted in the eyes of the astonished editors at Pulp Press a minor miracle: nowhere in Canada, or in North America, they were certain, had anyone encountered sentences and paragraphs like the ones that emerged from the keyboard of D.M. Fraser between 1972 and 1975—to constitute something new in the world. For whom was he speaking in his mock cri de coeur, if not for his friends?

You who are free, alive in the quick confident world, forgive us . . . Forgive us all who are your monuments, your history, who stand watch for you at the mouth of the labyrinth, beside Masterpiece Avenue. Have faith in us, whom you appointed to this eminence . . . We have our work, as you in the ordinary world have yours: forgive us the work we do for you. Deserve well of us, as we deserve of you, on Masterpiece Avenue, this eminence.

3¢ Pulp had a circulation of 1, copies and appeared nominally twice a month throughout the decade; it sold in bookstores across the country and to a subscriber list upwards of 3; when it folded in 198, it had published 117 numbers, each notable in its own way for scrappy presentation, scrappy aesthetics and scrappy politics. D.M. Fraser was part of its editorial soul for most of those issues, and he contributed his own writing regularly under a variety of pseudonyms. On the first of May, 1974, while he was otherwise occupied writing the stories that would make up his first book, he published a scathing response to Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing, which had appeared to much acclaim in 1972. Surfacing was symptomatic to Fraser of the state of Canadian letters; it represents the world that he was writing against:

. . . the real outrage here is that we are, as a “nation,” so obsessed with our (nonexistent) Cultural Identity that we are willing to settle for, and embrace, any sort of pretentious mediocrity which offers itself for our consumption, willing to accept any seriosity as seriousness, any topicality, however trivial, as Relevance, any narcissism as self-criticism, any thesis-izing as evidence of intelligence, any “Canadian Content” as actual content. (The full text of the essay is printed elsewhere in this issue.)

Vancouver in the seventies was a ramshackle city with few cultural pretensions beyond those sanctioned by the Presbyterian church. The mayor had made it his mission to clear the city of those he called scum, lowlifes and loitering louts; he was eager to protect the rights of those he called decent people. The police force was a brutal presence whose apotheosis was the Gastown Police Riot of 1971, an event that turned even shopkeepers and aldermen against the city government. The Vietnam War was killing hundreds of people every week, the invasion of Cambodia in 197 had provoked a small army of the loiterers and louts despised by the mayor to mount the first invasion of the USA since the War of 1812 (they were beaten back by police and the National Guard at Blaine, Washington, with no casualties).

It was a decade of hysteria at high levels: the Prime Minister, two days before his fifty-first birthday, unleashed the War Measures Act in October 197; six months later he married a woman from North Vancouver who was twenty-two. In 1971 he opened the whale pool at the Vancouver aquarium, and told onlookers that “too often the mystery of nature is far from us.” Press reports that day record that Mrs. Trudeau wore an off-white suit “in the fashionable below the knee length,” and the Prime Minister a blue blazer and striped shirt. In the evening the Prime Minister was burned in effigy outside the Hotel Vancouver by demonstrators described in the news as a mob of unionists, unemployed, women’s liberationists, members of the Gay Liberation front and agitators waving Che flags and chanting obscene slogans, while the Prime Minister and his wife consumed Cold Deck shrimp, Black Forest beer soup, “Hooktender,” chokerman’s tomato and catskinner’s delight ($5 a plate) at a Liberal Party dinner. “The people outside are doing their thing in a beautiful way,” said the Prime Minister, “peacefully expressing their views just as we are expressing ours.” The demonstrators ate fruit salad, rice, bread, potatoes, broth and chili con carne supplied by the Hare Krishnas at 5 cents a plate. Next day on television, the Prime Minister spoke of the “mass of physical and sexual and psychic energy that is bottled up in today’s youth” and offered a modest proposal for dealing with it: “I wish we could take 1, of them and say go and build a city up in the northern part of Canada. You’ve got some engineers, you’ve got some doctors, you’ve got some groovy people, people who want to live in communes—go and stake out a new city up there.”

Hannah Arendt writes of the “odd in-between periods that insert themselves into ordinary time,” periods when living participants, and not just later historians, become aware of an interval altogether determined by things that are no longer and things that are not yet: such was the time of the early seventies in Vancouver. As the editors of Pulp Press were dragging an ancient printing press up three flights of stairs, and old desks, tables and a supply of ancient Remington typewriters, other groups of untested or yet-to-be-tested editors and writers were similarly dragging old furniture into decaying buildings in other parts of the city: a women’s collective called Press Gang was setting up shop as a printer and publisher in a warehouse on East Hastings Street; activists living in Kitsilano in a rickety frame house with a veranda were bringing New Star Books into being; higher-browed literary types at Talon Books found a redoubt above a brass foundry near the tracks on Cordova Street; feminist writers and artists were preparing to launch Makara magazine from a low-rent storefront on Commercial Drive; there were poets and artists at Intermedia Press under Granville Bridge; the Knights of Pythias Hall near Kingsway and Broadway had been invested by artists and conceptualists calling themselves the Western Front; the poets and theoreticians of TISH worked out of living rooms and disused university barracks. And somewhere, who knew where, in some basement or backroom sanctuary, resided the mimeograph machine on which blewointment press continued producing its multifarious stapled volumes of poetry.

These centres of cultural activity emerged more or less at the same time, and more or less independently of each other; like D.M. Fraser and his friends at Pulp Press, they had turned their backs on the universities, the professions, the lure of the government job. They were dropouts, they had come into their place in the world without inheritance; and without testament, as Hannah Arendt points out, without tradition, there is no continuity, and hence no past, no future. What remains is only the interval:

Those days: a mousetrap for time, an intention that hid itself in the cobwebs, eyes bright and nose a-quiver, the moment we named it. Let’s make memories, Janey said. She has pale hair, educated nostrils, hepatitis, a mother in Miami. We are all waiting, stoically, for the arrival of the Past.

The editors at Pulp Press knew that they were being mocked in “Masterpiece Avenue,” that Fraser was mocking himself, and at the same time offering a prophecy, and an admonition. “We might ourselves become, in our fashion, a species of monument, an item in the history of the site,” says Fraser’s narrator:

We are constrained to be outlaws, desperadoes, the stuff of an incipient mythology. My own weakness is that I am small and squirrely, much given to moody brooding, inchoate inspirations (to violate the boundaries of our monumentality, embrace the poetic ladies, bare myself before the multitudes), and a not always disposition to tears . . . I am unworthy of Masterpiece Avenue.

Masterpiece Avenue stands in for the city, the nation, the world that was given in that time, as he and his friends were given to the world, a world that was for a time, for that interval, exterior to us and incidental.

D.M. Fraser was a tiny, ramshackle man with a bad heart and a weak constitution. He refused to align his life with the advice of doctors. He smoked Sportsman cigarettes and drank 3-star whiskey. At any odd hour he would settle fitfully into a corner of the Pulp Press office to leaf through manuscripts and letters, scratch notes into little black books, or clatter energetically on one of the Remington typewriters. He belonged to no coterie; he shunned literary scenes inside and outside of the universities. His friends were dope dealers and draft dodgers, union organizers, posties, professional drivers, pool sharks, racetrack habitués and a few poets and fictioneers who shared his tastes in literature and politics. The beer parlours he frequented with his friends at Pulp Press were the Marble Arch, the Alacazar, the Piccadilly, the Niagara and later the Inn Transit, the bus drivers’ private club, in which D.M. Fraser had an honorary membership. He conversed through clouds of cigarette smoke; he spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, slowly, so that one could follow his thinking, just as he was following it. He seemed barely to belong in the world, especially in this Canadian world, where all traditions and cultures—to borrow the words of Hannah Arendt, writing of Kafka and Walter Benjamin—had become equally questionable to him, and to us, who were less articulate than he, and also to our disaffected peers who occupied other addresses on Masterpiece Avenue.

Toward the end of the seventies, an era remembered not only for the War Measures Act, the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia, but also for the resurgence of feminism, the rise of Aboriginal resistance and the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, D.M. Fraser left an undated memo on one of the office typewriters; in it we can hear the same voice, in its semi-private urgency, that we could hear in the beer parlours as we listened to Fraser talk during those years on Masterpiece Avenue.

I, for example. I wrote, One day we shall unite all the contradictions in love. That was written to a lover in 1968, in a letter, every word of which I still subscribe to. Four years later, I remembered it and put it in a story, out of any context but the one I alone knew: I needed the Word, and it came back, in the Vancouver beer parlour where I was writing the story. In the first draft, I gave it a special emphasis; in the others (and there were several) I didn’t. Gradually I buried it where it belonged, among the trite and tender mouthings of romantic conversation. It seems to me now that we shall not, ever, unite all the contradictions, in love or otherwise; we may at best stick a few of them precariously together, with glue and patience, for a time.

D.M. Fraser was a writer of great talent who died at the age of thirty-eight in Vancouver, in 1985, after the seventies had gone. He published two collections of stories during his lifetime and left the world a small archive of journals and drafts and parts of a novel. He was admired by other writers for the beauty of his prose and the intensity of his conversation.

A few days after he died, as I was riding the number 17 bus, I saw the apparition of his face rise into the sky from behind the mountains in the north; I got off the bus and it was still there. It was not Fraser, it was his likeness, smiling and rather handsome, hovering over the city like an immense photograph taped to a stick; it was a perfectly bland sunny afternoon in the city, and I remember that earlier in the day I had been offended by the unrelenting pleasantness of the weather, which had become a pitiless reminder of the emptiness of all things. Now as I stood on the sidewalk I heard Fraser’s voice speak into my ear and then his apparition vanished from the sky. It was a hallucination and a blessing and the beginning of a restoration to the world.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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