Jim Christy: A Vagabond Life by Ian Cutler (Feral House $17.95)

Review by John Moore (BCBW 2019)

Jim Christy is a wild Steelhead in a Canadian literary seascape choked with schools of writers who are being spawned in university creative writing departments operating like fish-farms.
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 (all published by Ekstasis Editions), is a noir tour-de-force that demonstrates a mastery of this genre.

In contrast, The Redemption of Anna Dupree (Ekstasis, 2005) is a timely tale of a 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.

That being said, Christy’s kiss-the-canvas punch, however, is a style of journalism that blends eclectic scholarship with witness testimony—invariably to highlight oddballs, outlaws or fellow mavericks.

A case in point is The Price of Power (Doubleday, 1983), Christy’s relatively conventional but withering biography of an obscure “efficiency expert,” Charles Bedaux—seen respectively as one of the first of the new breed of apolitical amoral technocrats from McNamara to Cheney—who worked for the collaborationist Vichy regime to improve French industrial production to the ultimate benefit of Nazi Germany, and was later shocked to be treated as a war criminal.

Written as columns for Nuvo magazine, Christy’s mini-biographies of wild men and women with marginal lives has resulted in two volumes of Scalawags (2008, 2015, Anvil). As well, Christy has ceaselessly promoted the work of seminal Swiss-French author Blaise Cendrars (whose brilliance now makes Fitzgerald and Hemingway look like the middlebrow magazine hacks they actually were as they posed as Great American Writers).

As a self-advertising tough guy who knows the taste of blood and canvas, Christy, having punched in the Police Athletic league in South Philly, produced possibly the best book ever written about boxing, Flesh and Blood (D&M 1990). Morley Callaghan’s famous memoir of sparring with Hemingway is a lame comedy skit by comparison.

En route to the literary sidelines, Christy’s fascination with landscape and architecture led him to discover people who built their ‘dream homes’ in trees or under ground, out of discarded bottles or old tires, long before alternative architecture became trendy. The result was Strange Sites (Harbour, 1996), which fathered a Knowledge Network TV series, Weird Homes, for which Christy acted as location manager. Extreme home spin-offs now abound.

Christy’s early Canadian travel memoirs can be found in Rough Road to the North (Doubleday, 1980) and Traveling Light (Simon & Pierre, 1982). He cemented his rep as “a hip Indiana Jones” with globe-roaming tales in Between the Meridians (Ekstasis, 1999).

As a serial runaway since the age of twelve, Jim Christy ranks with Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux as one of the godfathers of alternative travel writing with his descriptions of 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.

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, so, for his biography, Jim Christy: A Vagabond Life, Ian Cutler focuses on establishing a basic chronology for someone who didn’t usually pause to note the dates and times of his exploits.
Cutler argues that Christy is part of a tradition of vagabond writers and philosophers that descends from Jack Kerouac, the Beats and Diogenes the Cynic, the ancient Greek philosopher who rejected materialism, lived in an earthenware tub in Athens, sniped at Plato for misrepresenting Socrates and snubbed the victorious young Alexander the Great.

Most literary biographers have two choices: gild the legend created by the author’s work or take a hammer to it. This biography is far from warts ‘n’ all. Cutler has chosen to accentuate Christy within his larger philosophical thesis about vagabond/tramp writers. Christy, whose gypsy life has made him slow to trust or be trusted, has given the high-sign to close friends like Vancouver author Joe Ferrone to cooperate.

Cutler has done a creditable job of establishing a baseline for the life of a uniquely important writer who has survived in the margins beyond major arts grants or writer-in-residence gigs. To give a genuine account of the life of a multifarious, peripatetic artist like Christy, going with the flow is an essential skill. Cutler frequently lets himself be lured off the main road into tantalizing detours. It’s an unorthodox approach to pay tribute to an unorthodox life. 978-1627310741

John Moore is a freelance writer in Garibaldi Heights. His new non-fiction collection is Rain City: Vancouver Essays (Anvil $20). 9781772141399