Ithaca. McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
The Beggar’s Garden: Stories. HarperCollins
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. David Davidar’s novel and Michael 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 highstakes international publishing, spiced with autobiographical self-revelation, won’t be disappointed. If Davidar’s father were a tea planter, Zach’s worked for a coffee company, and like the novel’s author, Zach 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 favourite) 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 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. When Dan, asked to mind Ginnie’s dog while she is away, happens upon his Buddy mounting Josephine right in his living room early one morning, he simply (and beautifully) closes the door upon the animals: “Enjoy it.”
Christie’s “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 television 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.