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.


  1. I bought Michael Christie's Beggar's Garden after hearing him interviewed on CBC Radio's "The Next Chapter" with Shelagh Rogers. I liked the way he spoke intelligently and compassionately about working with people in Vancouver's downtown East Side. (The podcast is available from CBC's site or from iTunes - it's the May 7th episode, and worth it if these stories do something for you).

    Most of the stories do something for me. It's the empathy with his characters that he gets across without treating them as caricatures or curiosities. And his talent allows him to be very funny and stark at the same time. Compassion means "suffering with" and Christie pulls it off in these stories.

    Once in a while, I found him trying a little hard to be "literary" and a few stories just didn't resonate with me. But I will stay tuned for any new writing from this fellow.

    In the podcast interview, Christie says the next thing for him is a novel. I worry a bit.
    If the short story is about performance, a non-stop, one-take high-wire act, the novel is a bit like architecture or urban planning. One isn't necessarily good at both.
    Another good short story writer, Pasha Malla ("The Withdrawal Method" collection) has recently released his novel "People Park". I would be interested to hear what you think of it.

    Thanks for keeping up the blog, wish I could be as disciplined.


  2. Hi David,

    Thanks so much for your insightful comment. I agree: It really IS empathy that makes The Beggar's Garden a cut above. And yes, Christie has a real flare for the short story form; hopefully he'll return to it even if he's working on a novel right now.

    Re Pasha Malla: Coincidentally enough, my wife is reading "People Park" right now, so I may borrow it from her after she's finished. She and Malla were both up for the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction back in '09 (he claimed the prize), although unlike him, her second book was another collection of short stories. It's nice to see that not everyone rushes to the novel in their sophomore outing.