Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie

Writing about misfits through fiction is incredibly hard to do. When it comes to portraying the foibles of drug use, free-and-easy sex, counter-culture lifestyles and ne’er-do-wells with quirky stories to tell, a lot of writing can come out as either gloating and glorifying. When writers want to be perceived through their fiction as hip, urban, and more than a bit self destructive, it can often breed a prose that is at once self-conscious and a touch disingenuous.

Which makes Michael Christie’s debut collection of short fiction, The Beggar’s Garden, all the more refreshing. When he portrays the weird and the down-and-out, the slackers and the druggies, you get the sense that he comes at these characters and their experiences from a deep well of close observation and personal reflection. There is nothing in The Beggar’s Garden that is false or for show. Everything is real and painfully three-dimensional.

The nine stories in this collection are set for the most part in Vancouver’s troubled east side and really do feature a motley assemblage of delightfully weird characters. We have drug addicts (“Goodbye Porkpie Hat”), a woman who calls 911 strictly for companionship (“Emergency Contact”), a man who becomes a financial advisor for a homeless man (the title story) and a troubled mental patient (“King Me”). In each case, Christie is able infuse his writing with humour, sensitivity and an unflinching authenticity.

Take for example, his piece “The Queen of Cans and Jars.” This story features a woman named Bernice who runs a thrift shop and often helps out her homeless clientele when they can’t pay even the store’s marked down prices. Bernice’s interaction with her at-risk customers, her care in looking after the shop, and even her entire value system and worldview is pitch perfect for the purposes of the story. You can see and feel the realism of the store; you can sense her struggles with the everyday reality of her community. Christie knows his material so well and expresses it beautifully.

My favourite piece in the collection has to be “The Extra.” Here, a man who may or may not be suffering from a mental disability is living rough in an unfinished basement apartment with his friend Rick when they are both cast as extras in a movie being filmed in Vancouver. The relationship between the narrator and Rick is akin to George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, with camaraderie and exploitation being irrevocably intertwined. Christie hits so many perfect notes in this story: the unreliable narration, the well-chosen details of the men’s basement dwelling, and the complex relationship we can have with both our closest friend and our sense of ourselves.

Christie’s book was praised far and wide when it was published last year, and rightfully so. It is a sterling example of a well-measured collection of stories honed by a newbie who writes like a well-seasoned pro.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Quill and Quire review of The Age of Hope by David Bergen...

is now online. I really loved the other books of Bergen's I've read (see my review of This Case of Lena S. here) but this new novel is a serious misfire. While I admire Bergen's attempts to inhabit a protagonist so very different from himself, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. What do other people think? Anyone out there enjoying The Age of Hope? Let me know.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: A Dark Boat, by Patrick Friesen

It can be easy (and common) for poets to equate old age with the fading of light. Darkness, in all its bleak black infinitude, gets treated as the end of something, the loss of richness or the vibrancy of life. Patrick Friesen, writing in his new collection of verse, A Dark Boat, has another take on the shadowy oblivion that creeps up on us all. Here, in this compilation of short, quiet poems, Friesen pulls off the impressive feat of lending darkness and shadow a fecund quality, comparing it to the fertility of soil, to the intrigue of an unanswered question, an unknown history.

The backdrop for A Dark Boat is Spain and Portugal and Friesen’s search for the ghost of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca, the acclaimed Spanish poet murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. In a number of poems, Friesen coalesces his preoccupations with darkness with his preoccupations over the questions that still linger over the death and life of Lorca. A chief example of this would be the poem “Lorca” itself, where Friesen writes:

what can be done about a dream
of black veils and a crucifix

what can be done when you’ve
forgotten your mother’s prayer

only death listens to fear
only his body hangs on to him

smelling the road’s dust
hearing the rifle’s bolt

If this sounds bleak, it really isn’t. A Dark Boat looks to superimpose an uplifting quality to what we traditionally see as gloomy subject matter, and this is his greatest tribute to Lorca. In his poem “Night”, for example, Friesen mixes vibrant colour with a grim task when he writes “a shovel across his shoulder/ he walks through yellow fields/ toward the stream where/ night is buried.” In “Widow”, he laces together loss with a kind of steadfast pride: “she has loved death/ the widow at the window/ has lain with it/ you don’t know what’s behind her/ in the dark room.”

My best example of what Friesen is doing here actually comes from the title poem, the first in the book, when he writes, “you are alone/ and you mean precisely that// you make do/ with the night you have.” Here, night is not the end of something but rather the beginning; its shadows hold secrets and the darkness provides a test for your mettle, a chance to prove the strength you possess.

Perhaps the entire atmosphere of this small book could be summed up by simply the title of my single favourite poem: “the sun shines through the cracks of the shithouse door.” Yes, exactly. If that’s not a reason to read poetry, and to embrace the dark as well as the light, then I don’t know what is.