Michael Christie’s Giller longlisted story collection, The Beggar’s Garden, joins the 2011 list. While Christie lives on Galiano Island (unlike the U.S. where westward migration gets halted at the coast, Canada has both the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island to serve as one last step in the push west although frequent ferry service maintains contact with the urban world), he brings to this first book some distinct Vancouver experience. He is a graduate of the highly-regarded creative writing program at the University of British Columbia, but prior to this he worked in a homeless shelter in the Downtown Eastside, perhaps the toughest, most drug-ridden neighborhood in all of Canada. The nine stories in this collection reflect that experience, with a number focusing on the distressed characters who live in and around that neighborhood. (Regular readers of this blog may recall that one of my favorites of 2010, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted, reflected a similar history of street-level social work followed by writing, that one set in Toronto’s underclass — the two books do compare.)
The characters in Christie’s stories aren’t all down-and-outers, but most of them are — and all are damaged people, which probably helps explain how they have come to land in or near the Eastside. The central character in the opening story, “Emergency Contact”, is Maya whose social life consists of phoning 911 and waiting for the emergency crew to arrive. A recent call resulted in the appearance of a paramedic with whom she immediately developed an obsession. The fire department unit usually comes first, she notes in the first-person account:
When they came before, they all had the same moustache and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t on fire or at least dead. To be honest, I prefer the paramedics.
And the paramedic who had come last week I prefer most of all. He’d spoken tenderly and stayed for nearly an hour. After he checked me out, I made him green kool-aid in the plastic jug, stirring it with my wooden spoon that’s stained green from all the times I’ve used it. He sipped, his elbow on my counter, pursing his lips until they disappeared, and said it was a slow night.
I asked him what days he worked.
Four on four off, he said, and I have tomorrow off.
Maya has counted the days carefully before placing her next emergency call and she is ready with a carefully-chosen card from the dollar store — Love is in the air! is the printed message, but she has added her own on the inside. Alas, the ambulance crew that arrives does not include her chosen one, but she knows he will inevitably show up at the hospital emergency ward so, quite literally, she goes along for the ride.
And her budding love interest does eventually make an appearance, but that is mainly window-dressing for the author as he explores the inner workings of an obsessed, lonely person for whom an emergency ward represents hope of human contact, not a way station for the injured. The premise might seem absurd but any veteran EMT working in the neighborhoods where the poor and distressed live will tell you it is only too common. Christie handles it very well.
The title story, “The Beggar’s Garden”, is the last in the book and explores how individuals arrive in this sorry neighborhood and state. Sam Prince is middle-class, works in the fraud department of a bank (“initially, his rise at the bank had been rapid”) and is married to Anna, trained as a lawyer but now a casting director for the many films and commercials shot in Vancouver. Alas, she has recently embarked on an extended visit to her wealthy parents, who live on one of the sprawling acreages outside Calgary, taking the couple’s child Cricket with her. She seems determined to stay there and wants a break, perhaps permanent, from Sam — his response has been to lock up the house and move into the backyard:
Sam Prince lay awake, listening to a squad of raccoons loot his recycling. Since moving into the slumping structure behind his house — it backed onto the alley and was either a shed or a small garage, he’d never been sure — he’d taught himself to distinguish the noise of the raccoons licking his containers clean from the more orderly clanking of the men who came on trailered bikes to rummage his blue bins for anything they could return for deposit. There, in the interminable dark hours of recent weeks, Sam had come to the fearful knowledge that the alley doubled as a nocturnal highway where all valuable things were to be carted away.
Sam runs into the beggar of the title during one of the street roamings that now fill up his free time — Spare Change? Drug/Alcohol Free, GOD BLESS is his begging sign — and he strikes up an acquaintance. Sam maintains some of his former middle-class character and drive and it is not long before he decides to take on the beggar in a form of street venture capitalism. Sam will be “director” of the enterprise, both in terms of allocating funds (he sets up a high-interest savings account for the daily surplus) and overseeing marketing and location. New to vancuvr. Spare Chanje for food and medecine? Thanks is the new sign and the begging site is re-located to the trendy Granville district where tourists just off the cruises to Alaska wander with spare Canadian currency that soon will not be of use to them.
The enterprise is succeeding but the dramatic twist comes when Sam heads to Calgary at his wife’s request to explore the slim prospects of reconciliation. He installs the beggar in his shed/garage to tend things while he is away and the beggar proves adept at restoring the Prince’s once flourishing garden. That motivates him to explore changing his life to a more conventional version — the contrast between someone finding escape from squalor with someone inexorably descending into it provides for a powerful story.
Christie’s debut is an impressive performance which struck a chord with me. Those of us who live in communities that are prospering are well aware that prosperity brings with it the subcultures of extreme poverty and damaged individuals who just can’t cope with the everyday demands that are part of it. It is that thread, more than anything else, which runs through the nine stories in The Beggar’s Garden and it is a phenomenon worth exploring. While it would not have made my personal Giller shortlist, the collection does introduce a writer who is certainly worth watching in the future.
(The Beggar’s Garden was the second choice that Dorryce Smelts made for my gift to her — her thoughts on the collection will appear in a guest post tomorrow.)