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On The Road With Jim Christy
by Allan Levine

Author, Artist, Adventurer, and Actor are among the roles in this multi-talented performer`s repertoire IT`S TUESDAY NIGHT, October 9, 1990 at the Unitarian Church in Vancouver. Jim Christy is working the crowd, shaking a hand here, parrying a clever quip there, pausing while an enthralled woman jots a fact on a scrap of notepaper. This is a dedicated, enthusiastic group that has gathered at the church - nurses and other health workers, craftspeople, civil servants, part-time adventurers -and yet most of its members would be amazed to discover that a much-published author is in their midst. Christy, a Vancouver-based writer, mixed-media artist, and landscape gardener, has just spoken to a meeting of the Questers. His topic: gold-hunting in Honduras and the wilds of British Columbia. The Questers share, among other things, a passion for divining or "witching": they seek water, precious minerals, and what they call "energy fields," as well as medical treatments that will cure serious illnesses without requiring major surgery. Christy`s subject is of vital interest to the group, since the methodologies of locating water, gold, and invisible energy are much the same. What he gives them is a fascinating account of his researches in Guatemala`s renowned Antigua Library, which lead to the pinpointing of a treasure long thought to have been permanently lost. Christy`s dry humour, Gary Cooper-like presence, and impeccable timing rivet his audience`s attention, and thoughtful questions spill forth when he concludes. Faster on both his literal and metaphorical feet than most, Christy came out of his Central American adventures with his skin as well as his spirit intact. But his evening with the Questers underlined the fact that despite being a widely published author, several of whose books have received substantial critical acclaim and a measure of commercial success, he is very much a marginal figure within the Canadian literary community. "I think I fall somewhere in the middle between the mainstream and the avant garde," he muses. "And I have the feeling that not only am I out of the game, I don`t even know where the stadium is or what the rules are. But then, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don`t know whether I`d want to belong to any organization that would admit the likes of me." Christy was born in Richmond, Virginia, on July 14 Bastille Day - 1945, and grew up in South Philadelphia, a tough, turbulent milieu chronicled in his novel Streethearts (1981) as well as Sylvester Stallone`s Rocky films - more realistically in the former, it should be noted. Christy remembers that "Boxing was in the air, you knew people who had boxed; if Dickens had been around he would have written about boxing," Christy`s latest book, Flesh and Blood: A Journey into the Heart of Boxing (1990), is a richly evocative account of a sport that - in a way parallel to Christy`s experiences with the literary establishment - he sees being "pushed farther and farther out into the margins." His lifelong urge to see as much of the world as possible first began to manifest itself at the age of 12, when young Jim began running away from home at every opportunity. Although it usually wasn`t long before he was picked up by the authorities, he did once get as far as the outskirts of Buffalo, where he met an aged Russian count who was also on the bum. The count`s family had been very wealthy before the Revolution, he told Jim: "I even had a dogsbody." "You had a dog`s body!" Christy exclaimed. "Gosh, you look all right now! " Later, between snatches of high school, college, and a variety of dead-end jobs, he struck out to see the world by thumb, bus, and fast freight. One of his closest friends and mentors was Floyd Wallace, a hobo - Christy likes to remind us that hobos, originally, were not mere bums, since their name derived from hauts beaux, the French phrase for a superior type of wanderer - from Colorado who had been a prize-fighter, merchant seaman, and soldier of fortune. In "`Bo,"` a memoir of Wallace published in Outlaws (1974), Christy set down some of the strong feelings that this natural "king of the road" stirred in him: Bo was saddened, times were changing, he saw the old ways dying, it was the loss of a world. I saw him as a stubborn rider of the old west, a high plains drifter pursued by the new century. To me it was a new world ... I was going to be a great wandering poet and Bo was the legendary traveller of my or anyone else`s imagination made real and I saw the changing of a way of life as poignant drama. A more mature Christy still sees himself as very fortunate to have met "the last of a breed, the International Workers of the World hobos who had been radical union organizers, who had fought in Spain, and who were some of the greatest people you`d ever want to meet!` He particularly admires the fact that "They had an intellectual as well as a physical side to them something that was rare then and is rarer still now!` In 1968, Christy came to Canada as one of the thousands of young Americans who chose not to serve in their country`s armed forces. He soon became involved as an editor, publisher, and jack-of- all, trades for several of Toronto`s "underground" newspapers, which served the burgeoning draft-resister community as well as a broader anti-establishment readership. Guerrilla, Dreadnaught, and Tabloid didnt last very long, but they earned their creators considerable respect for their energy and fearlessness. He remembers it as an exciting time when "many people who later became good writers got their start in the underground-press scene. A lot of enthusiasm and a lot of ideas coalesced in those papers; but unfortunately, there was no place to go after that; when that era ended the ideas died, too. But they aren`t dead for me, and 1 suppose that`s another one of my problems." Christy`s first book, The New Refugees: American Voices in Canada (1972), dealt with the experiences of draft resisters who had settled in Canada during the previous decade. Beyond the Spectacle (1973), a collection of essays on various aspects of popular and underground culture, incisively captured the anarchic exuberance of these turbulent years; it is still one of the best guides to a period that now seems irretrievably - and unfortunately - lost. Palatine Cat, a collection of poetry, appeared in 1978, and in 1980 Rough Road to the North: Travels along the Alaska Highway offered a fascinating look at a fresh new world, its distinctive inhabitants, and a historical past largely unknown to outsiders. A 1983 collection of short stories, Travelin` Light, ranged between Alaska and the Amazon while demonstrating his ability to make engrossing fiction out of his experiences and adventures. It was while researching Rough Road to the North that Christy became interested in the life of Charles Eugene Bedaux, whose biography he would eventually write as The Price of Power (1984). Bedaux, whose reputation has been damaged because of his involvement with fascist sympathizers, was a fascinating character who carried on a non-stop career as an explorer, entrepreneur, and confirmed hedonist. Christy`s painstaking biography, which appeared after Pierre Berton and others had published conventionally critical estimations of Bedaux, easily eclipsed them in terms of scholarship, if not sales. Although his interest in life`s adventurous side has led some observers to see Christy as merely a two-fisted brawler, he is in fact a committed anarchist who continues to campaign for beliefs that go firmly against organized society`s grain. He emphasizes that it isn`t the stereotypical image of the bomb-throwing anarchist, or of mass rioting in the streets, that appeals to him: "My idea of anarchism is similar to George Woodcock`s, which is that it`s a belief in an ever-expanding horizon, a world whose organization is not based on authority and asserting one`s will upon someone else. To those who say that anarchism means social chaos, I`d advise them to look at the newspapers: we`ve got that under capitalism and communism, so why shouldn`t we try something else?" In Christy`s world, it is personal friendships rather than institutional affiliations that are of crucial importance. He sees himself as extremely fortunate to have had so many good friends, among whom the late Marcel Horne was one of the closest. Horne, whose Annals of the Firebreather (1973) is a remarkable portrait of the life of a carnival performer and quintessential social misfit, struck Christy as "a pure spirit, a combination of toughness and tenderness that you don`t find very often. He was a firebreather in every sense, an adventurer who was larger than life." Christy edited Horne`s book for publication, and no one was more devastated when its author died in a Florida traffic accident. People such as Horne and Charlie Leeds - a jazz musician and writer Christy describes as a reincarnation of Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky`s The Idiot - are "heroes" for him: "I`ve always had people that I looked up to, and I`m not afraid to admit that. Floyd Wallace, Marcel Horne, Charlie Leeds, Emma Goldman, Sir Richard Francis Burton - these people are beacons for me, even though I don`t think of myself as a hero-worshipper per se." Burton, the great British orientalist, spy, linguist, and author, occupies a special place in Christy`s personal pantheon: if the scholar- adventurer`s notes had not been destroyed by his misguided widow, a much more coherent idea of Islamic society might have replaced the Western world`s fixation on sand, camels, and veiled women. In another of his metiers, professional acting, Christy has been typecast in equally misleading fashion: the professional thug, sometimes a KGB operative, sometimes an organized-crime hit man, and almost always what the script designates as SOC, "silent on camera." "There might be two people in the shot, one talking and the other standing around looking menacing, and I`ll usually be the silent guy. I`ve been in about 90 film and TV productions, and so if anyone ever recognizes me on the street in Vancouver, it`s because of something I was in." The question of recognition is a difficult one for Christy, who has no interest in becoming a media star of the talk-show circuit, but would nonetheless like to make a living from his work. Despite an impressive publication record, however, he has been turned down 13 times in a row in his applications to the Canada Council, and has made exactly one appearance at a literary reading: it was at Harbourfront in Toronto, and came about only because his publisher (Doubleday, at the time) "hectored them into it." Since in Canada it is just about impossible to maintain yourself as a writer without this kind of support, Christy has always had to subsidize his writing by working at something else. "Although sometimes I may sound like I`m crying sour grapes about my lack of recognition as a writer," he muses, "that doesn`t mean I`ve soured on writing itself. When I first became interested in writing, I did think that writers were going to be different from the way so many of them are. You read their biographies on the dust-jacket, and they`ve all been to creative-writing schools. Those courses can help people, but you should take them when you`re older and have something to write about. A young person should go out and have a little bit of experience in life." As a result, Christy observes that "I don`t see any imaginative power in most of the contemporary novels I read, although every once in a while you`ll get a happy surprise. I just read Cecelia Frey`s The Love Song of Romeo Paquette (Thistledown, 1990), a book that has compassion, warmth, and a strong sense of how people live together in an Edmonton rooming-house. But there`s too little of that, and too much sophomoric surrealism. I think life should supply the material for literature, so I would always advise young people to live first, and then the writing will take care of itself." Partly as a response to his own sense of neglect, and partly as a result of his fascination with a new medium, Christy has recently devoted much of his energy to the plastic and visual arts. Working primarily in the areas of sculpture and collage, he has already had several exhibitions at galleries and shops in the Vancouver area. He now considers himself "as much an artist as a writer," not least because "I get much more response from my art; in fact, it has saved me from some bitterness about the lack of reception in the publishing marketplace. A few days ago I took down an art show where not only did I sell pieces, I also received invitations to mount shows elsewhere, to be part of a group show, and to be involved in several other things. This one show has brought me more recognition in six weeks than I`ve received in 20 years of writing" For Christy, his artistic endeavours are an exciting addition to his creative life. "The art comes from somewhere else than the writing does - the process is totally different, the mental reward is different -and I don`t try to blend the two. I don`t write about the art, and I don`t make art out of literature." This doesn`t mean, however, that he`s given up on writing. The sequel to his novel Streethearts, provisionally - and funkily titled Reet Petite and Gone, is making the rounds of publishers; and another novel, this one set in Vancouver in the roaring 1930s, is also circulating. He has also finished a volume of short stories called Rapscalion Pete, about some of "the rogues and scalawags you meet on the margins"; and a collection of poetry and a children`s book are currently underway. Why such prolific production, in the face of such general neglect? "To paraphrase Flaubert," Christy concludes, "Writers aspire to move the stars to pity; but in reality, most of us end up using the language like a cracked kettle, beating out tunes for bears to dance to. And there`s absolutely nothing wrong with that."

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