March 13th, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" by Mike Christie

It’s occurred to me recently–this morning, actually–that when I say a short story is weird, I pretty much always mean it as a compliment. I guess I would have to, because the opposite certainly isn’t. You never hear someone say, “What I love about your work is how it completely conforms to my expectations! Way to stay within the paradigm!” A short story has a lot of tasks to accomplish, but I’m pretty sure one is to surprise the reader, somehow, at least a little.

Of course there’s a continuum of weirdness, with some brilliant writers inserting a little frisson into an otherwise tradional narrative, and others choosing to go big or go home. In his Journey Prize longlisted story, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mike Christie goes very very big on weird–it’s the 27-page story of a crackhead living in modern-day Vancouver, who is visited and befriended by the ghost or spiritual manifestation of the father of the atomic bomb,J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the two go on a rock-smoking bender together.

If Mike Christie weren’t a sizeable talent, you can pretty much see the above turning into a ghastly mess, rather than what it is, which is a genuinely funny and moving story about the general state of be f*cked-up. Among the above-mentioned tasks assigned to the short story are to move, to entertain, to teach and to challenge, as well as to to unsettle and unnerve, and Christie doesn’t let the weird overwhelm any of his other duties.

The protagonist of the story, Henry, lives in a room “the size of a jail cell” and spends most of his time thinking about, procuring, cooking, and smoking crack. His other interest is reading a grade-10 science book that he found in a dumpster. Henry has a passion for science, and he mocks the kid who trashed the book thinking “September would never come.” Henry knows better, and works hard to learn, in a sweet, sad, drug-addled way–at one point, he tries to memorize the periodic table.

Henry gets beaten up, goes hungry, gets stoned, gets beaten again, and reports it all with the sort of dopey equaminity of born loser who has burnt away all the braincells for bitterness. Even when trying to placate a guy who wants to steal his crackpipe, Henry feels he is trying avoid a “probably already inevitable beating.” Henry exists in such a strange and narrow part of reality–for certainly there are people like him–that when the most famous and troubling dead scientists of two generations ago appears at his window, it seemed a story twist I was willing to go with.

J. Robert, as Henry calls him, is interested in crack-cocaine: the purchasing of it, cooking and smoking and contemplation of it. He wants to perform an experiment with his brain and the drug. And Henry, lover of both the scientific method and being high, is happy to help. It’s, obviously, a strange evening, but Christie’s achievement is not only that it rings true, but that the reader empathizes with the characters, both of ’em. Well, this reader did.

J. Robert also has a few braincells he wouldn’t mind burning away–you can imagine that the so-called father of the atomic bomb might. His wordy, pompous diction matches the delusions of grandeur that go with the crack high perfectly–his speechifying is terrifying and boring and funny, all at once: “Hank, once I tired of your platitudes, now I see you for who you are, a great probing and unflinching mind, steadfast and brilliant in the greatest of fashions, but yet modestly so…”

Christie’s other big achievement in this story is that he made me feel like I know what it’s like to smoke crack, and that’s something I really wanted (come on–if somehow you could get a promise that you wouldn’t get shot or arrested buying it, or addicted or permanently damaged smoking it, you’d do crack just one time to know how it feels, wouldn’t you? it can’t be just me) I don’t know if they’re accurate, but Christie’s descriptions of the chemical ride are wild and visceral, and they put you there: “my brain has a family reunion with some long-lost neurochemicals, and I crouch beneath the party, not wanting to disturb it, shivering and eurphoric next to a dumptster. A seemingly infinite and profound series of connections and theories swamp my mind.”

Most drug stories I’ve read are resolute in their morality one way or another –sometimes people get detoxed (and thus redeemed), sometimes everyone just burns out and destroys themselves (and thus punished) but rarely do you see a writer take on something as loaded as drug addiction and then make it just a part of the plot. One of the reasons I wanted to review this story is because I’m at a place in my work where endings are just so hard to nail down, and the one to “Pork Pie Hat” really does everything I want the ending of a story to do: encapsulate some of what’s happened, and some of what might–or must–happen next; and make it naturally meaningful.

There’s more I’m not mentioning–minor characters and plotlines, the titular hat, the titular song by Charlie Mingus (a funeral song, which seems about right). A big big story, but like all the good ones, only exactly as long as it needs to be.

Nothing matters when we’re dancing

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