- David Davidar (Author)
Ithaca. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Christie (Author)
The Beggar's Garden: Stories. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christoph Irmscher
In his iconic 1958 poem
Skunk Hour, American poet Robert Lowell, immersed in misery (
I myself am hell), watches a skunk and her young parade down Main Street in search of garbage. He finds himself envying the animals, even as the skunk mother jabs her nose into a cup of fetid sour cream. Davidar’s novel and Christie’s collection of stories are in different ways about people during such skunk hours, or rather skunk nights, when they hit the rock bottom of their lives. Davidar’s novel, featuring a smooth-talking Indian-born publisher named Zachariah
Zach Thomas, was highly anticipated in Canada and abroad, and with good reason: once the wunderkind of international publishing, Davidar was forced out of his position at the helm of Penguin Canada after harassment allegations became public. He has since returned to India, where he has co-founded a new boutique publishing firm, Aleph. Readers expecting Ithaca to provide some exposé of the world of high-stakes international publishing, spiced with autobiographical self-revelation, won’t be disappointed. If Davidar’s father was a tea planter, Zach’s worked for a coffee company, and like the novel’s author, Thomas loses his position as a result of a scandal, though of a more professional than personal nature. Zach is in charge of Litmus, a small but important publisher on the verge of a takeover by the improbably named Globish Corporation. He is an unrepentant snob, freely expressing disdain for the
unattractive bodies in string bikinis and Speedos surrounding him when he is on vacation, as well as for the authors he must deal with. Writers are mainly irritants in Zach’s world, populated as it is by agents, editors, and CEOs sporting Brioni suits and Hermes ties or tight dresses with
the merest hint of cleavage.
And so we watch Zach drink his way through meetings and book release parties, downing one whiskey after another until it finally seems to matter little whether he is in London, Toronto, or Frankfurt. Not surprisingly, the book’s most memorable passages are set in India. In a haunting memory from Zach’s boyhood in the Shevaroy Hills of Tamil Nadu, we see him crouched inside his fancy home, clutching his absent father’s shotgun, because he feels the lurking presence of an escaped convict outside, behind the hibiscus hedge. No one believes him. Days later, the convict is caught and admits that indeed he was there.
When Zach’s multimillion dollar gamble on the last work by a recently deceased author (and audience favorite) collapses because the novel turns out to have been largely plagiarized, the CEO of Globish fires him and he returns to his home in India, where the old postman Nagesh comforts him:
The journey is not over. Shining Ithaca, the blessed home, is still waiting for him. But Zach is no Odysseus. His haughty response to the postman-turned-prophet:
The insights . . . are not new. There is nothing this publisher extraordinaire thinks he doesn’t yet know, though recent developments should have taught him otherwise. This also warns the reader not to take Zach Thomas as a simple stand-in for the author himself: unlike his protagonist, Davidar is a writer, too.
Michael Christie’s characters hail from a world that is as different as can be from the cocktail parties Zachariah Thomas frequents. His stories, linked by an intricate system of subtle cross-references, are set mostly in Vancouver’s Eastside, and they tell of people whose lives are teetering on the edge of the abyss and of the remarkable things they do to keep themselves and others from falling over. Christie was a professional skateboarder, and it’s tempting to think that the incredible sense of balance required of him in his other life also shapes his storytelling. An example of his secure handling of detail is
An Idea Companion, a story of the failed relationship between Dan, owner of a bumbling wolfhound named Buddy, and the hare-lipped Ginnie, owner of a large terrier called Josephine. Christie unsparingly describes the moment when Dan and Ginnie attempt a kiss,
a string of spit briefly trapezing between them, but then brings the story home to an unexpected conclusion: while Dan and Ginnie cannot be together, their dogs can, and when Dan, asked to mind Ginnie’s dog while she is away, early one morning happens upon his Buddy mounting Josephine right in his living room, he simply (and beautifully) closes the door upon the animals:
beggar’s garden is full of people like Dan who settle for life’s second best. Take Bernice, for example, the
Queen of Cans and Jars, a thrift-store owner who once sold shoes for Woodward’s, or the aptly named Earl, a retired worker for BC Hydro, who recognizes the face of his long-lost, now homeless grandson Kyle in a news program on TV and promptly sells all his possessions to be with him. Settling into a seedy Vancouver motel, he joins Kyle in his daily dumpster-foraging, without ever letting on who he really is. In
Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Henry, a hopeless junkie in a rooming house across from scrappy Oppenheimer Park, is visited by the actual Robert J. Oppenheimer come-back-from-the-dead, who is looking, you guessed it, for a fix (never mind that the park isn’t even named after him). And while he might be nothing more than a crack-cocaine-induced fantasy,
Oppie’s delirious verdict that
Humanity, my friends must experiment might serve as a motto for Christie’s collection as a whole. The author’s narrative risk-taking has the reader participate also in the weird self-coronation and apotheosis of
King Saul, whose mind might be in shreds—the reason he has been committed to Riverview Hospital—but whose vision of the future, announced to his dazed fellow patients, is beautifully complete:
He vowed to rule kindly and justly. . . . His subjects would be free to live as they pleased.
Perhaps the most memorable member of Christie’s motley cast of derelict would-be royals is Sam Prince, who, abandoned by his family, has moved into the toolshed behind his house and spends his days talking to the beggar Isaac (coincidentally, the lost brother of King Saul of Riverview Hospital). One night, Sam and Isaac surprise a family of raccoons rummaging through his garbage. Like Lowell’s skunk and so many of the characters in Christie’s book, the animals, shabby monarchs of the junkyard, simply
will not scare. The following morning, Sam, a true Prince once more, retakes possession of his empty house.
- Editing Archives by Jody Mason
Books reviewed: Waste Heritage by Irene Baird and Colin Hill and Dry Water by Jean Horton, Neil Querengesser, and Robert Stead
- Unfixed Selves by Vijay Mishra
Books reviewed: Beautitudes of Ice by Rienzi Crusz, The Faces of Galle Face Green by Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri, and The Heat Yesterday by Ian Iqbal Rashid
- Records of the Past and Future by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust by Jeffrey Shandler and Citizenship in Transformation in Canada by Yvonne M. Hébert
- W/here Are We Now by Ranjini Mendis
Books reviewed: At Home in Diaspora: South Asian Scholars and the West by Jackie Assayag and Veronique Benei
- Telling Lives by Joel Baetz
Books reviewed: Threads of Life: Autobiography and the Will by Richard Freadman and Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling by Lisa Capps and Elinor Ochs
MLA: Irmscher, Christoph. Skunk Nights. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #216 (Spring 2013), General Issue. (pg. 158 - 160)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.