The Giller Prize does it again: The Beggar’s Garden (2011) is another excellent short story collection, and another from a debut author. The author’s blurb says that Michael Christie “worked in a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and provided outreach to the severely mentally ill.” His experiences there have made there way into this collection with striking emotion and clarity.
The Beggar’s Garden is made up of nine short stories, each centering on someone dealing with some form of mental illness or homelessness or both. Each story stands entirely on its own, though throughout Christie has them slyly referencing each other. No story was a failure, though I have to admit that I liked the ones in the first half quite a bit more than the ones in the second half. That said, I’ve gone back to those early stories and found that they not only held up to my memory but have strengthened.
The first story is called “Emergency Contact,” and it begins with an excellent line: “They sent the wrong paramedic, one I’d never met before.” Here we meet a woman whose loneliness is so heightened and so well portrayed it feels rapturous. Her soul is bursting. Her loneliness has driven her to seek companionship by calling ambulances so she can savor the human contact, taking her back to a long illness of her youth that kept her happily in a hospital for months. One paramedic was particularly kind and, while treating her for nothing, complimented her on her nightgown. That was two weeks ago, and ever since she’s been dying to call for another ambulance at the same time she’s afraid of coming off as desperate. The way Christie ties this state of mind to a physical malady that needs treatment shows just how strong a writer he is:
Tonight after dinner I’d put on the same interesting nightgown before dialling 91 at least thirty times, snatching and replacing the phone for over an hour. There should be someone who picks up when you just dial 91, someone reassuring and pleasant, a service for people in almost-emergencies, because that’s what this was, not really in the life-threatening category. I just needed to see someone specific, but it was the sort of longing that could corrode something essential inside me if it stretched out for years.
Of course, she finally calls, and as we saw in the first line the wrong paramedic showed up. The pain and longing is so delicately handled, we can see that Christie is basing these people on his own experiences and his own feelings for them. She finally does make it to the hospital, hoping to find her paramedic, but just being at the hospital is a great start:
I’ve always liked how they make the ID bands impossible to remove without destroying them, how for this reason you could never wear the bracelet of another, how they, and the belonging they bestow, must be earned.
“Discard,” the next story, begins with an older man named Earl roaming around a garbage can, scoping out its contents, spying a promising clean cake. But rather than attempt to get the cake, the Earl attempts to set a half chicken in the trash in such a way it won’t be soiled, the smell coming out “a smell so bad it graduated to taste.” As it turns out, Earl is not homeless. Rather, a while before he lost his wife and, in the destitution that followed, he saw his estranged grandson on the television in a line for a soup kitchen. He assumed his grandson, whom he helpd raise, was dead, but there he was. So now he has taken it upon himself to make his grandson’s life a bit easier. It took him a long time, but eventually he found his grandson and learned his daily routine:
He found himself strangely proud of his grandson, proud of the steady way he carted the things he found and of the resourcefulness the task required. Earl knew that he himself had never worked so hard in his life.
And now, knowing his routine, Earl hopes to help his grandson feel a bit luckier, though it doesn’t go quite as planned.
“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” is one of the strangest books here. Structured like a science paper — “Purpose,” “Materials,” “Method,” etc. — here we meet a crack smoker who has found a deep love for science. This helps him out a great deal when a somehow alive J. Robert Oppenheimer who hopes to have some assistance smoking crack.
In another heartbreaker, “The Extra,” we meet a mentally ill narrator who lives in a basement (no, not a basement apartment, a basement) with a man named Rick. The narrator’s voice is optimistic and innocent: “Most of the time I forget it’s damaged. Maybe it’s too damaged to know it’s damaged. Or maybe it’s not damaged enough for me to notice. Either way, it’s not very bad.” Rick isn’t actually terrible to him, but at the same time he is taking advantage.
Rick needs my help. He can’t get welfare because years ago he got kicked off for not telling them he had no job while he was still getting cheques. But Rick says we’re lucky because I have a disabled brain and we get more money than the regular welfare pays anyway, so it works out, and we split the disabled money right down the middle.
As the story progresses, Rick finds the perfect job for them: they will be extras in a movie one of Rick’s high school friends is working on.
Each of these stories is different. The characters are impoverished in a variety of ways, but Christie is consistent in his presentation: it is caring without in the least romanticizing the characters or their situations.
A shortlist contender? I hope so.