"You remind me of Malraux." - Charles Bukowski

"His poetry is like a cross between Catullus and a country and western song."- John Moore, SUBterrain Magazine.

"The last unpurged North American anarchist romantic. Bakunin bless him!" - George Woodcock.

Always in search of original characters and experiences, Jim Christy is a literary vagabond with few peers. He was once described by George Woodcock as "one of the last unpurged North American anarchistic romantics." His publisher has called him a hip Indiana Jones; one reviewer credited him with a "Gary Cooper-like presence." His buddies have included hobos, jazz musicians, boxers, and non-academic writers such as Charles Bukowski, Peter Trower and Joe Ferone. "I never dismiss another's story out of hand," he writes, "no matter what it's about or how outrageous it may seem." Christy's often wry reminiscences of his travels, trysts and trials are fueled by a hard-won pride. A gardener, a sculptor and a spoken word performer with a jazz/blues ensemble, Christy has been seen in film and television productions, usually in non-speaking roles as a thug or a gangster.

Born in Richmond, Virginia on July 14, 1945, Jim Christy grew up in South Philadelphia, a tough area featured in his autobiographical novel Streethearts, and also featured in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky movies. "Boxing was in the air," he once recalled. "You knew people who had boxed; if Dickens had been around he would have written about boxing." Christy later wrote about boxing as a business and a sub-culture, in Flesh & Blood. Christy began running away from home around age 12, once getting as far as the outskirts of Buffalo. He befriended one of his closest friends and mentors, Floyd Wallace, a hobo, a former boxer and a former soldier of fortune, and learned to ride the freights at a young age. Christy came to Canada in October of 1968, to evade the Viet Nam war draft, and was active in co-founding two shortlived underground press publications in Toronto. His first book concerned draft resisters in Canada. Christy became a Canadian citizen as soon as possible. While researching Rough Road to the North, he became fascinated by the life of Charles Eugene Bedaux, and subsequently wrote a biography called The Price of Power. Other outsiders who have struck Christy as heroes include a veteran carnival performer named Marcel Horne, jazz musician Charlie Leeds, leftist Emma Goldman and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Jim Christy first came to Vancouver in December of 1981 to promote his novel Streethearts, and he has remained on the West Coast, adopting Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast as his home base. An artist, gardener, prolific freelance journalist and an ex-regular on American Bandstand, Christy has evolved his own "King of the Road" outsiderism into a cool-headed series of "noir" fiction featuring a tough-talking private detective in Vancouver named Gene Castle. The series opens in 1937 with Shanghai Alley and moves forward to 1939 in the second Gene Castle gumshoe mystery, Princess and Gore, a title drawn from two street names in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The third Castle mystery is Terminal Avenue, another title drawn from a street name. It features the bullet-eating detective searching for the kidnapped daughter of a Nazi resistance leader. The series culminated with Nine O'Clock Gun [see review below].

As a departure from his detective novel series, Christy published The Redemption of Anna Dupree, an unconventional love story and a "road novel" about an acid-tongued, elderly actress in her seventies who escapes to Mexico with Colin, a much younger employee of the Okanagan nursing home in which she lives. The protagonist, who formerly appeared in some British and American noir films in minor roles, has been described by reviewer John Moore as an unrepentant bad girl who is "guilty of no crime but her age in a culture that worships youth."

Christy has had his passport stamped in Central America, Greenland, Cambodia, Europe and Brazil. The locales for Christy's non-fiction collection entitled Between the Meridians include an annual convention of hobos in Britt, Iowa and the Honduran jungle where he searches for a Golden Madonna--plus memories set in Bogota, Soweto, Chiapas, Honduras, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Vienna. Other reminiscences introduce a local hit man, a stripper, a lesbian Mom, an aging Russian Count, two homosexual Indian brothers from the Yukon, named Byron and Shelley, and a lovelorn American tourist waiting 20 years for a Mexican gigolo.

Some hype is too good to overlook. According to Guernica Editions, "The poetry in Marimba Forever is concerned with love and longing, which the author displays in all their multifarious guises. Many of the poems can be regarded as small films: nourish, action, farce or slapstick; others call music to mind: a tenor saxophone improvising on a standard melody in the wee small hours just as the milk man is getting up and rubbing sleep from his eyes; a roadhouse honky-tonk hell-raiser; six gypsies with accordions and tubas on the back of a flatbed truck somewhere near Ploestki or a marimba orchestra in a tropical town square playing like they never want to stop while palm trees sway and lovers neck on the green benches."

In quick succession, Jim Christy published his 32nd book since 1972, The Big Thirst and other Doggone Poems (Ekstasis $23.95), followed by his 33rd, Rogues, Rascals, and Scalawags Too: Ne'er-Do-Wells Through the Ages (Anvil $20). Always in search of original characters and experiences, Jim Christy is a literary vagabond who has a follow-up volume to Scalawags: Rogues, Roustabouts, Wags & Scamps. The characters profiled for Ne'er-Do-Wells include Carolina Otero, Andre Malraux, Lord Timothy Dexter, Suzanne Valadon, William Hunt, Mata Hari, Emma Hamilton, Bata Kindai Amgoza.

[Also see Charles Bukowski entry.]

BOOKS

The New Refugees: American Voices in Canada, editor (Peter Martin Associates, 1972)
Beyond the Spectacle, essays (Aline Press, 1973)
Palatine Cat, poems (Four Humours Press, 1978)
Rough Road to the North, travel (Doubleday, 1980)
Streethearts, novel (Simon & Pierre, 1981)
Traveling Light, stories (Simon & Pierre, 1982)
The Price of Power, biography (Doubleday, 1983)
Flesh and Blood, (D&M, 1990)
Letter from the Khyber Pass, CD and intro (D&M, 1992)
Strange Sites: Uncommon Homes & Gardens of the Pacific Northwest (Harbour, 1995) with photographs by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward & Lionel Trudel & Felix Keskula
The Sunnyside of the Deathhouse, poetry (Ekstasis, 1996)
The BUK Book, Musings on Charles Bukowski, biography/appreciation (ECW, 1997) with photos by Claude Powell
Shanghai Alley, novel (Ekstasis, 1997)
The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, biography/appreciation (ECW, 1998)
Junkman, stories (Ekstasis, 1998)
Between the Meridians, travel stories (Ekstasis, 1999)
Princess and Gore (Ekstasis, 2000)
Terminal Avenue (Ekstasis, 2002)
Tight Like That (Anvil, 2003)
The Redemption of Anna Dupree (Ekstasis, 2005)
Scalawags: Rogues, Roustabouts, Wags & Scamps (Anvil 2008)
Nine O'Clock Gun (Ekstasis, 2008). 978-1-897430-20-0
Marimba Forever (Guernica, 2010). Poetry. 978-1-55071-316-9 $20
Sweet Assorted: 118 Takes From a Tin Box (Anvil, 2012) 978-1-927380-05-5 $20
The Big Thirst and other Doggone Poems (Ekstasis 2014) $23.95 978-1-77171-073-2
Rogues, Rascals, and Scalawags Too: Ne'er-Do-Wells Through the Ages (Anvil 2015) $20 978-1-77214-017-0

CITY/TOWN: Gibsons, B.C.

ANCESTRAL BACKGROUND: Italian-English

EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Artist

AWARDS: One drama prize. National, Western, Webster Awards for journalism

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS: "I've held many jobs in many parts of the world--a journalist in 1974 wrote that the list of jobs I've held would read like a parody of that kind of thing. And he wrote this when writers still took jobs instead of going to creative writing school. Ferryboat deckhand, Chesapeake Bay; Landscape worker, Yukon Territory; antiquities restorer, Mexico; free lance photographer, Vietnam, etc."

Ian Cutler wrote a biography of Christy:
Jim Christy: A Vagabond Life (Feral House 2019) $17.95 978-1-62731-074-1

[BCBW 2019] "Fiction" "Literary Biography" "Memoir"

 

REVIEW


Escape from the fish farm

A serial runaway from the age of 12, Jim Christie became one of the godfathers of alternative travel writing modeled on Jack Kerouac, author of "On the Road."

Jim Christy: A Vagabond Life
by Ian Cutler, with a foreword by Luis E. Navia


Port Angeles, WA: Feral House, 2019
$17.95 (U.S.) / 9781627310741

Reviewed by John Moore

*

Literary biography is a problematic genre. Ostensibly, its purpose is to illuminate the author?s work, but writing about an author inevitably means competing with a substantial body of work the writer has already published that makes him or her ?bio-worthy.? When the subject is Jim Christy, that?s like betting your bus fare home from the pony track on the long-shot in the ninth race.

Christy is a wild Steelhead in a Canadian literary seascape choked with schools of writers spawned in university creative writing departments operating like fish farms. As a poet, he?s better than most who claim the title. A typical Christy short story from Junkman & Other Stories (Ekstasis, 1998), opens with a guy walking into a bar, flicking a switchblade, and stabbing it into his left forearm ? a wooden prosthesis. His trilogy of Eugene Castle novels, set in Vancouver during the Dirty Thirties, Shanghai Alley, Princess and Gore, Terminal Avenue (Ekstasis Editons), are a noir tour-de-force that demonstrate his mastery, both in style and plot mechanics, of what has become a classic modern genre. His 2005 novel, The Redemption of Anna Dupree (Ekstasis), showed he could apply these skills to a timely tale of an aged lifelong female rebel who rages ?against the dying of the light? even when confined to the coddled, chemically-sedated environment of a senior?s care home. Poetry and fiction are mostly busy-work, jabs and hooks that make your head ring; Christy?s kiss-the-canvas punch is a style of personal journalism that blends eclectic scholarship with authentic witness testimony. For half a century, his byline has graced most periodicals worth the name in this country.

In 1983 Doubleday published The Price of Power, Christy?s relatively conventional biography of unconventional, obscure, time-and-motion ?efficiency expert? Charles Bedaux, one of the first of the breed of apolitical amoral technocrats who now run the world. After the defeat of France in 1940, Bedaux worked for the collaborationist Vichy regime to improve French industrial production to the ultimate benefit of Nazi Germany, but was shocked to be treated as a war criminal. Christy?s biography is a revealing portrait of one of the shadowy ?hollow men? who defined the 20th Century decades before Cold Warriors like former corporate executive, later US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara tried to conduct global policy and localized wars using similar pseudo-scientific criteria.

Christy?s choice of Bedaux as a subject signalled his lifelong fascination with the oddballs and outlaws whose influence on European and North American culture has been much greater and more lasting than their fame at the time or current reputation would suggest. As a critic, he has ceaselessly promoted the work of seminal Swiss-French author Blaise Cendrars. Reading Cendrars now makes Fitzgerald and Hemingway look like the middlebrow magazine hacks they actually were while they posed as Great American Writers.

Christy?s interests have always extended far beyond the merely literary. Vancouver?s Anvil Press has published two volumes of his Scalawags articles, originally written as columns for Nuvo magazine, mini-biographies of wild men and women who led incredible, often marginal lives, yet shaped the cultural history of the wealthiest and most influential part of the world. Christy?s Flesh and Blood (Douglas & McIntyre, 1990) is possibly the best book ever written about boxing, a relic of the ancient gymnasium that fascinates our culture to this day. Penned by a guy who punched in the Police Athletic league in South Philly and knows the taste of blood and canvas, compared to it, Morley Callaghan?s famous memoir of sparring with Hemingway is a lame comedy skit.

Ever seeking his own eccentric kind, Christy?s fascination with landscape and architecture led him to discover people who built their peculiar ?dream homes? in trees or underground, out of discarded bottles or old tires, long before alternative architecture became trendy. The result was Strange Sites (Harbour Publishing, 1996), which fathered a Knowledge Network TV series, Weird Homes, for which Christy acted as location manager, and which grandfathered extreme home spin-offs that continue to be produced by staid media like the BBC to this day.

Disparaging travel writing of the ?where to get a good cheeseburger in Grombalia? school, Christy stands with Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux as one of the godfathers of alternative travel writing modeled on Jack Kerouac?s On the Road, a book he credits with making him abandon his journeyman career as a gangster and light out for Canada. A serial runaway since the age of twelve, the road held few terrors for him. When his family moved from the colourful violent South Philadelphia neighbourhood of his childhood to the sterile suburbs of late 1950s Middle America, he hit the road for good. In Canada, he kept rambling, exploring, getting to know its people from south to north, as well as the usual east to west, chronicling his restlessness in Rough Road to the North (Doubleday 1980), Travelin? Light (Simon & Pierre 1982), and his finest collection of globe-roaming tales, Between the Meridians (Ekstasis, 1999), which cemented his rep as ?a hip Indiana Jones.?

How do you write a biography of an author with a CV like that?

Sensibly, Ian Cutler chose not to write a critical biography. It would take years of research to track the reading lists of a guy who has been known to reference Restif de la Bretonne, Knut Hamsun, and Raymond Chandler in the same sentence and the book would be four times as long. Instead Cutler focuses on establishing a basic chronology for the life of a chronic vagabond who has explored the margins and shadows where things happen that make it unhealthy to pause to note the date and time in your journal. Like the feral alter-ego he adopts in one of his best poems, ?Palatine Cat,? Christy has used up most of his nine lives, collecting for loan sharks in South Philly, dodging poisonous snakes and murderous guides in Central American jungles while seeking lost ancient cities, rotting in a rat-infested Colombian prison, and hanging out with the kind of people who pass you a pistol when there?s an unexpected knock on door.

A philosopher with a special interest in the writing of tramps and vagabonds, many of them dropouts from the depressions that have plagued capitalist economies since the late nineteenth century, Cutler extends his interest to the Beats, who opted out of the North American postwar prosperity boom on ethical and aesthetic grounds. He argues that Christy is part of a tradition of vagabond writers and philosophers that descends from the ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic, who rejected materialism, lived in an earthenware tub in Athens, sniped at Plato for misrepresenting Socrates, and snubbed the victorious young Alexander the Great, who asked if he could do him any favour, by saying, ?Yes, stand out of my sunlight.? That sounds enough like Christy at a sidewalk table blowing off some loudmouth weekend hipster breathing too close to his beer, but he?d be more likely to reference guys with road monikers like Frisco Jack and A-Number-One, Texas Guinan or Arthur Cravan, as role models.

Despite risking a chronological approach that invites dullness, (the deadly And then ?? narrative style), Cutler lets himself be lured off the main road into tantalizing detours presented by an unorthodox life so often that he frequently has to resort to the To get back to the story gambit. In some biographers, this might be accounted a failure to establish order on the material, but to give a genuine account of the life of a multifarious, peripatetic artist like Christy, going with the flow is an essential skill. Cutler?s numerous narrative reboots testify to his determination to stay on task despite temptations to wander as freely as his subject.

Pressured to produce sensational bestsellers, most literary biographers have a choice: gild the legend created by the author?s work or take a hammer to it. That?s an even-money bet, lousier odds than Russian Roulette, which explains the reluctance of author and their friends or heirs to co-operate with biographers unless they sign ironclad ?friendly? waivers up front. Christy, whose gypsy life has made him slow to trust for solid reasons, trusted Cutler enough to co-operate and give the high-sign to close friends like Vancouver author Joe Ferrone to do likewise. Despite his obvious desire to include Christy in his larger philosophical thesis about vagabond/tramp writers, Cutler has done a creditable job of establishing a baseline for the life of a uniquely important writer no would-be biographer could discover by looking at records of major Arts Grants or cushy Writer-in-Residence gigs. The irony of literary biography is that, as mortal beings, writers are as flawed and ephemeral as anyone ? but the author?s work survives and speaks to the future, to readers and rebels of generations to come.

*

John Moore of Squamish wrote features and book reviews for The Vancouver Sun for 15 years ? on everything from Prozac to old sports cars ? and also wrote general interest features, mostlyguy fashion, wine advice, book reviews, and outdoors stories for the North Shore News. His latest book, Raincity: Vancouver Essays, will be published in October 2019 by Anvil Press