The Beggar’s Garden
By Michael Christie. HarperCollins, 261 pp, hardcover
In his searing Journey Prize–nominated story “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, Michael Christie tracks a crack addict’s adventure with the ghost of theoretical physicist and atomic-bomb pioneer J. Robert Oppenheimer. As their time together draws to a close, the apparition, whittled by drugs, declares, “the world in which I shall live, from now on, will be a pretty restless and tormented place; I do not think that there will be much of a compromise possible for me, between being of it and being not of it.”
The gravity of these words echoes throughout the eight other stories in Christie’s first book, The Beggar’s Garden, a skillfully composed collection of short fiction illustrating the gritty textures of life in places like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Coquitlam’s Riverview Hospital. The narratives showcase lonely characters who scour for connection while struggling with drugs, mental illness, or regret; their encounters with charity are often tainted by a need for redemption or distraction, either their own or someone else’s.
The title story presents a white-collar worker who, in the midst of a disintegrating marriage, opens his wallet and home to assist a panhandler. “Discard” visits similar territory, telling of an old man who uproots and comes to the anonymous aid of his estranged, dumpster-diving grandson.
This volume’s transcendent tales speak of yearning, remorse, and renewal, and their grimness is offset by apposite bolts of black humour.
Violence and subtlety are deployed by Christie with equal acuity; the book’s most striking works are “King Me”, which chillingly conveys the frantic unravelling of a long-term psychiatric patient, and “The Queen of Cans and Jars”, where the proprietor of a thrift store realizes the liabilities of sentimentality after a chance encounter with a former coworker.
Dividing his time between Galiano Island and Thunder Bay, Christie, who previously worked with both the homeless and the mentally ill, depicts these wounded hearts with solemn authenticity. His assured prose compassionately describes these characters’ internal orbits and discloses the personal histories that rustle through back alleys and hide beneath the ragged faí§ades we pass on the street.