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The Beggar's Garden

The Beggar’s Garden

Michael Christie (HarperCollins 2011, Hardcover) 261 pages, $24.99 msl

written for: The Winnipeg Review

Some years ago, a surprising number past as I look back at it now, I lived for a very pleasant time in one of the Great Cities. It truly doesn’t matter which one it was; to mention the name would do nothing but bog the point I’m going to make it down in a swamp of specificities. (‘Was that great Polish bakery that smelled of sugar and candy perfume there then?’) The observation I made then was that the Great Cities are not so much a whole but rather a thousand small villages all stitched together by sutures of long streets. Each of those villages has its own life and culture, linked and yet apart. Finally, just to completely fix the image in your mind, a city is like the English language: the words spoken in Oxford UK, St. John’s Newfoundland or Natchez Mississippi may all be the same, but the differences in accent are immense.

All of the above, I suggest to you, leads naturally to my deep appreciation of Michael Christie’s book of nine short stories The Beggar’s Garden. 2011 has so far been a very, very good year for short story collections with the way being led by Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting and Miroslav Petrov’s East of the West. The young Canadian Christie may trail the Irish master and the American emigre from Bulgaria, but not by much and he seems to have the legs to go the distance.

Christie shares an admirable quality with Doyle - they both look at the fringe characters of society not as boozers, users and no-account losers to be shunned or mocked; rather there is an empathetic love that coats (not sugar-coats mind you) each man’s writing. I say empathetic rather than sympathetic for two reasons. One, sympathy is perhaps the most arrogant of human emotions: ‘Oh you poor thing. I am superior to you so therefore I offer you my blessing.’ If you think of Tom Wolfe - whom I otherwise admire - writing about ‘street people’ you’ll know what I mean. Empathy is much more, shall we say, writerly. the author takes whatever pains and regrets he or she has in life and imbues it into truly lived characters. If you think of Method Acting when it is on its game, again you’ll know what I mean.

These characters in The Beggar’s Garden are the ones that are seen and then ignored every day in the Great Cities - in this particular case Vancouver. There is the elderly woman always been carted off to hospital by ambulance in Emergency Contact. Why is she always calling ambulances? The paramedics for those minutes or hours actually care about her. Or there is the beggar in the title piece, smelling of piss and animal odors with his yogurt cup hopeful of being filled with loose change. Is there, if not nobility exactly, at least a humanity there, some creative force beyond whatever mishap led him to the street corner and the newspaper tent? Yes.

Of course, the only really important question in assessing a book is: Can the lad write? Oh heck yeah. In King Me, the story of a mental patient, there is this simple yet devastatingly eloquent passage where Saul, who has dodged taking his meds for several weeks with the result of a crazed window of reality, finally acquiesces and swallow his cup of orange, green and white pills:

“As he returned to the Dayroom, Saul could feel the medication’s tingle of dissolution in his throat, preparing for its short journey upriver to the palace of his mind. He would grow duller, meeker and less capable by the minute, and King Saul knew that if it was to begin, it must begin at this moment.”

Now you tell me - could you set up the final action set-piece any better? If you think you can, stop reading this review and start writing immediately.

I also have to admit something. My idol as a reviewer is the late Dorothy Parker, and like the famous Dottie I’m a sucker for a good dog story. As such, my favourite piece in the book is An Ideal Companion. Oh, I smiled and felt for both dog and owner all the way through that one. When the romance that emerges from Man with Dog meets Woman with Dog ends quite literally with a kiss...well if that doesn’t pluck at your heart you have no heart worth plucking. Just to reiterate: The lad can write.


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