There’s a lot out there in the world that can hurt us, and that pain is the current running through Galiano Island–based writer Michael Christie’s debut novel, If I Fall, If I Die. A complex book exploring mental illness, mother-son relationships, and the freedom of skateboarding, it’s also a coming-of-age friendship story that could be filed next to Stephen King’s The Body (the basis for the 1986 film Stand by Me).
The book begins Outside: that is, outside the Thunder Bay home of Will Cardiel, an intelligent preteen boy whose artist mother is a full-fledged agoraphobic. Will has spent most of his childhood Inside, sheltered by both the walls of his house and his mother’s unflagging approval. Will paints “masterpieces” his mother compares to Rothkos and creates “Philip Glass–style compositions” on an organ, but when we meet him, he’s showing his first signs of rebellion, venturing outside the house, albeit while wearing a safety helmet. But Will’s adventures soon take him further afield, leading him both to school and to the friendship of a serious, artistic Native boy named Jonah.
That friendship shields Will from many of the dangers that he faces Outside: other boys, malevolent (and racist) adults, and even wolves. Christie’s writing, when describing the boys, is beautifully evocative and warm: “In class they were cheetahs napping,” he writes, “preparing for the bell’s merciful peal.” But the book is at its most exquisitely anxiety-provoking when dealing with both his mother’s trauma (seen through her eyes) and Will’s efforts to integrate with society: he’s so naive that he’s unable to understand irony, and he struggles to grasp the true meaning of what other kids say. One of his earliest misinterpretations—understanding “whatever” to mean “no matter what” rather than sheer indifference—underlies one of the book’s major plot points. But, aided by Jonah, Will transforms from guileless shut-in to confident, bruise-impervious skateboarder, and the two embark on a quest (in true coming-of-age style) to locate a missing boy, an undertaking that lands them directly in real harm’s way.
One of Christie’s major accomplishments here is his sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of mental illness—no surprise after The Beggar’s Garden, his poised 2011 short-story collection about the Downtown Eastside. But he shows, too, that he’s able to write a convincing page-turner, one full of keen insight and brave emotion.
Originally published in the Georgia Straight on January 21, 2015.
You can find a full archive of my Georgia Straight reviews here.