Everyone says [Oppenheimer] park was named after the scientist who invented the nuclear bomb. It has playground equipment, but it’s always empty because no parent would ever bring their kid there, on account of it being normally frequented by people who are like me or Steve or worse. The park is infamous, an open-air drug market, they say. From my window, I’ve seen people get stabbed there, but not all the time, good things happen in the park too. Some people lie in the grass all day and read. The people who are reading don’t get stabbed. I’m not sure why that is.
The narrator of this paragraph, from a story called “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” is very unreliable. The reader finds out later that the park is not named after the scientist but by an early mayor of Vancouver. The character, it turns out, is stoned on crack for much of the story and so it is up to the reader to determine what is real and what is in his amped imagination. For instance, is it possible that he gives the deceased scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer a crack-fuelled tour of the Downtown Eastside or is he just high?
From a more personal level, I would consider him unreliable because the room from which he views the park can only be in one of the houses directly adjacent to mine which creates two problems. One is that there is no way his landlords would stand for his long time crack habit or Steve’s heroin addiction in the co-op (I know the landlords very well). Two is that parents take their children to the playground all the time. I suppose it is possible that the story takes place before the establishment of the co-op, when the park was much less safe and the landlord was an absentee slumlord. I will allow that to be the case, but it is less fun.
Being that as it may, the story is one of the stronger stories in this brand new collection of short stories by Michael Christie called The Beggar’s Garden (Harper Collins, 2011) [261 pages; $24.99cdn]. That’s not to say there are more than one or two weak stories among the nine in the collection.
What ties the collection together is the Downtown Eastside setting. Only one story has no connection with the neighbourhood and yet it is still in the surrounding area. Christie explores several aspects of the area through varying genres and points of view. The protagonists range from working class grandfather to single yuppie to department store clerk to banker to mentally disabled movie extra to delusional romantic to car thief to institutionalized schizophrenic to aforementioned addict and Christie explores these people either in their own voice or in the third person. The issues he explores are often specific to the recent history of Vancouver—the squatting at the Woodward’s building, the gentrification of Strathcona, the lowish budget movie industry, the defunding of the mental hospital that led to many of our current problems down here—but he writes them well enough that someone less familiar with the surroundings would still enjoy the book.
Not all explorations work as well as others. The first person crack addict, for instance, was much more effective than the mentally disabled movie extra, partly because the voice was more convincing but also because the story was more engaging. Fortunately, “The Extra” is one of the shortest in the book.
I, personally, found the best stories to be the ones where the protagonists were outsiders having to deal with the neighbourhood rather than those more typical residents. “Discard” tells the story of a grandfather in search of his homeless grandson and “The Beggar’s Garden” decides to advise a panhandler’s business pro bono. But I also enjoyed “King Me,” ironically, since I have the least in common with the schizophrenic who drives that tale.
In short, The Beggar’s Garden is a welcome collection of stories not only because of its setting, which is what drew me to it, but also because of its daring composition. There is plenty to enjoy and think about in the book.