Author Tags: Fiction

Chris F. Needham of Vancouver has worked as a bouncer, bartender, forklift driver, computer technician and magazine editor. An Inverted Sort of Prayer is his first novel. Promotional materials state: "Cut loose at the end of a long and violent hockey career prolonged by steroids and numbed by liquor, ex-enforcer Billy Purdy discovers that the soon-to-be-published novel of a celebrated politician’s son is in fact Billy’s father’s own, taken word for word from the original published, and promptly forgotten, some forty years before. Allowing the ruse to continue, and in an effort to distance himself from his violent past, Purdy embarks upon an exotic, oftentimes comical adventure in an attempt to reinvent himself in what he envisions to be a more cerebral and civilized image, in a world he has never fully been a part of, or developed the necessary tools to properly inhabit. Yearning for connection of any kind, yet seemingly unable to sustain it for any length of time, Billy Purdy comes to symbolize the alienation, frustration, and ultimate futility behind this quintessential Canadian dream." In Falling from Heights, Needham's follow-up to An Invented Sort of Prayer, he delves into controversial drug experiments in Toronto in 1972, sponsored by government.

DATE OF BIRTH: 22/03/1969



An Inverted Sort of Prayer (Now or Never Publishing Co., 2006). ISBN 0-9739558-0-5

Falling from Heights (Now Or Never Publishing Co., 2007; $21.95). 978-0-9739558-1-1

[Now or Never Publishing Company at #704, 1460 Barclay St, Vancouver, BC Canada V6G 1J5.]

[BCBW 2007] "Fiction"

Falling from Heights by Chris F. Needham (Now or Never Publishing $21.95)

from Cherie Thiessen
You don’t want to mess with the three Jacks boys, Jonathan, Robert and Jeremy. In Falling from Heights, none of them can sustain lasting relationships.

Jonathan, the elder by sixteen years, is a sexual predator. Jailed earlier for his attacks on young girls, he has done his time and now lives in a heritage home in a respectable Langley community; closely monitored 24/7 by four full-time employees.

Robert has left his second wife, and a three-year old daughter he has no interest in, in favour of impregnating one of his high school students, whom he subsequently may have assisted off the Knight Street Bridge. The partying student Sukhvinder, and her unborn child, unsurprisingly didn’t survive the plunge—or fall.

Although he doesn’t drink, Robert loves to beat the hell out of guys in bars, he loves to watch his twin brother, Jeremy, get plastered, and he doesn’t say no to a good toke. Jeremy, the drunk, is the best of the three, although he’s a failure at work, relationships and life.

Both university-educated brothers, Robert and Jeremy, are “temporarily” doing menial jobs in a smelly Delta fish feed plant. Unfortunately, Robert can no longer teach school, not because of Sukhvinder—nobody knows about that yet—but because he punched out the principal in front of his students. One wonders why this pugilistic charmer would have ever chosen teaching children in the first place.

Jeremy has reluctantly returned to Vancouver from eastern Canada where he has had one largely unread, misogynist book published. His return is prompted by a phone call from his father, with whom he has had a dicey relationship, telling him that Robert, who is an army reservist, has been killed in a jump while on a weekend training mission.

The father tells him Robert’s parachute must have become entangled with that of a fellow jumper, one Corporal Sidhu, but when Jeremy returns and accompanies his ailing father to the airport, expecting to pick up a very small coffin, his brother limps off the plane. Turns out that Robert has miraculously sustained only minor injuries, as Sidhu cushioned his fall.

Unlike Sukhvinder, Robert has survived his fall from heights.

Both younger brothers, now close to 30, return to the family home with their Dad, a home that is constantly losing ground to a rapacious ravine. There has never been a mother in the picture. Jon Sr. has told his boys she died while on a honeymoon with her second husband.

The present-day story of the Jacks family is posted as blog entries on the Internet by someone with the pen name of Lucy. Given that the only Lucy we meet in the story is a cat at the eldest son’s guarded residence, we are intrigued to learn more.

The twins and their relationship feel very credible, and the plot is engaging, so with all of this excitement going on, you would think it would be easy to get yanked quickly into this novel. In fact, it’s a struggle at first, mostly because of the author’s stylistic choice of intruding into the story and because of his use of convoluted and lengthy paragraph-long sentences. Here’s an example:

Together Jeremy and his father tried to get limping Robert into his now vacant, incessantly leaky condo —as mentioned, Robert’s wife had taken a recent leave of absence from their relationship, taking with her their three year-old daughter—but with his various minor injuries, together with everything else presently falling apart in his life, they thought better of it and decided to install him in his old room at his father’s house, the very house Robert and Jeremy had grown up in.

Later the author’s intrusiveness largely disappears, especially once the story ricochets to the most overtly deviant son, Jonathan. But only about half of this novel is about this scary family of four.

Right from the beginning, interspersed with the Jacks family, we have another intriguing storyline: A mysterious but fascinating young woman, Birdie, is writing letters and diary entries from a voluntary “prison,” part of a well-paid controlled experiment on the effects of marijuana usage, a trial that took place in the early 1970s.

It’s this half of Falling from Heights that was evidently inspired by real letters and events that occurred at a government-sanctioned drug experiment in Toronto in 1972.

The letters from Birdie, some of which Jeremy finds in the family home, are 30 years old. Articulate, funny and insightful, Birdie’s writing pulls us in right from the start and fortifies us for the frequent ‘trips’ back and forth to the Jacks brothers. We want to know who Birdie is, and what she has got to do with the chaos and carnage in the lives of the Jacks twins.

Needham’s combination of “Lucy’s” modern communication method of blogging with the somewhat passé action of letter writing by Birdie makes for a welcome juxtaposition.

Plots can sometimes benefit from being convoluted, as long as the author leaves us crumbs to find our way out of the maze, but there’s a great deal about Falling from Heights that is perplexing. Why has Needham gone to so much trouble to caricature Jeremy’s drinking buddy, a well-known alcoholic actor who played in a long-running television series? And why is he including real events and people from Greenpeace?

And what about those environmental conflicts he introduces? Whoever would have guessed that Jon Jacks, the one time alcoholic and aimless father we meet at the beginning, would also have been involved in Greenpeace and environmental activism?

And, of course, who really is the mother of these twins and where the heck is she?

Flashes of a Lexus, a missing girl, and her no-good boyfriend, also keep flicking throughout the novel, piquing our curiosity and further knitting together this dark story.

Symbolism is everywhere, from the ravine’s encroachment on the family yard, to the cracking cement in the fishpond, to the unfinished treehouse for Robert’s daughter. Possibly Needham began writing as a poet before he wrote An Inverted Sort of Prayer, his other novel, about an ex-hockey enforcer, that was published shortly before this one. 978-0-9739558-1-1

-- review by Cherie Thiessen

[BCBW 2008]