The good, the sad  and the reckless, Pat Quinn

Taur
Jack Lasenby
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 1 877135 18 6

because he’s my brother
Helen Beaglehole
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
ISBN 0 908783 31 0

At the Big Red Rooster
William Taylor
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 0 877135 20 8

Further Back than Zero
Fleur Beale
Scholastic, $12.95,
ISBN 1 86943 387 4

Lasenby pulls no punches. The second novel in his  Travellers trilogy, following the acclaimed Because We were the Travellers, begins with death. Even before the reader enters the text, the first chapter title, “Tara Dead”, destroys any illusion that the story of Ish, motherless, outcast boy of the nomadic Travellers tribe, will be able to accomplish the connubial, pastoral resolution implied at the close of the prequel.

Before the first page ends, Tara, his love, is dead; by the second page he has possession of the greenstone fish for which she was killed and has identified the cruel distorted face of Squint-face, her killer from the Salt People. Ish abandons his dream of settling at the Hawk Cliffs and replanting trees all the way north into the sun-ravaged Whykatto. Pursued by Squint-face and the Salt Men, hungry for the return of their greenstone god, Ish gathers his memories, his dogs, donkeys, goats and sheep and begins the long trek south.

On one level Lasenby’s book offers the reader a geographic puzzle (and a useful map) of a dying land ravaged by time, heat and desolation, yet marked by familiar forms. From the Hawk Cliffs, Ish travels past Lake Top, along the Tungaro River to rumbling shaking country where a mountain billows ash. It is here that he meets Taur, the Bull Man, a huge, bellowing man, violent and dangerous in his long leather cape and horned bull’s head but mild and gentle unmasked. Taur is mute, his tongue a severed stump. But Ish learns to understand the patterns of Taur’s bellows and realises that they share, and must flee from, a common enemy: Squint-face.

It is a mark of Lasenby’s skill as a writer that he can open his novel with a lone protagonist from whom he strips all hope, family and friends, provide only dumb animals as companions (whose numbers inexorably reduce as the story unfolds), then add a second, eponymous character whose vocabulary is limited to grunts and wild gesturing. Yet he hooks and holds the reader’s interest right through to the climactic, confrontational end.

Lasenby’s knowledge of survival techniques, of living off the land and the sea, gives potent credibility to the companions’ ability to endure arid tussock land, frozen wastes, deserts and mountainous passes. His writing style is lean yet powerful, like the images it evokes:

I drove my spear into a crack, tied the rope, dropped its end. Leaned to take the weight of Taur’s weight but felt nothing. Looked over the ice cliff. Taur was charging back across the terrace towards the Salt Men … Tall he towered, and I saw he was wearing his bull mask. He raised something to its mouth. The horn trumpet! Weird on the icy air its bellow brayed.

This is a memorable, tough and uncompromising book where themes of betrayal, cruelty and death make their mark, much as Ish marks the passage of their journey with charcoal drawings. But the overall motifs of friendship and loyalty prevail; as Ish says to his dog: “People die … We are lucky if we have time to love them.”

2

Themes of loyalty and friendship are also addressed in Helen Beaglehole’s novel because he’s my brother. The setting here is firmly located in contemporary New Zealand: bush, beach, windswept headlands, racial tension, family pressures – and high school drug-dealing.

Gabrielle Duggan, the narrator, is the seventh-form twin of Phillip. They share parents, home, friends, classes and the mental anguish of making responsible decisions in an adult society. But where once they shared the close affinity of twins (Beaglehole is herself a twin), the bond is beginning to show signs of stress. Phillip is unusually distracted and edgy; he has acquired an expensive leather jacket and a new circle of friends. His sullenness, and Gabrielle’s resultant anxiety, are exacerbated by tensions at home between their peace-loving, ineffectual father and terse, ambitious mother.

Gabrielle’s attempts to escape this claustrophobic atmosphere of acrimony and simmering anger provide welcome moments of relief. With her new friend Stephen Rawini she bikes, as she used to with Phillip, into the hills, across farm tracks and out to the headlands by the sea. In contrast to her deteriorating relationship with her brother, her friendship with Stephen grows. As their intimacy develops, she gains insight into Stephen’s cultural heritage and, through him, a gradual awareness of the need to reconcile individual loyalties with the demands of society.

But hindered by self-doubt, Gabrielle achieves awareness the hard way. To maintain her loyalty to Phillip, she risks her integrity and her friendships. She makes assumptions that cannot be supported in the adult environment that she and Phillip have recently entered: as eighteen-year-olds, they fall outside the jurisdiction of the Children and Young Persons Act and must face adult consequences.

Beaglehole writes with a strong sense of the anguish of those caught between the hopes of youth and the realities of adulthood. She does so in a straightforward, unpretentious style, delightfully exuberant in the descriptions of cross-country cycling, and only occasionally let down by some old-fashioned phrases that might puzzle the teenage reader.

The plot builds strongly to the climax and eschews an easy resolution. In keeping with the contemporary setting, the author maintains a pragmatic tone: it is possible to break the patterns of bitterness, to move on from old injustices, but to do that you have to learn to let them go.

3

William Taylor has been at it for years. Writing, that is. He was hoarding manuscripts in boxes, cupboards and drawers for over two-and-a-half decades, and they might be there still but for a recent invasion by rodents. Taylor rescued the leftovers (the shorter fiction had fared better than the novels) and produced At the Big Red Rooster, the first and very welcome collection of his short stories.

In these eleven stories, the reader is treated to snapshot views from the wide-ranging landscapes of Taylor’s perceptive pen (or, for the later works, his PC). His affection for his country and its characters is unmistakable: male relatives range from the irrepressible (and almost dangerous) Uncle Mick to the highly avoidable (if only!) hot, sweaty Fat Teddy and bony Uncle Arthur; females luxuriate in names like Sharleen, Lisa, Delyse, Wilma and nearly-sixteen-year old Tina who drinks Markay View, while among the blokes (beer drinkers, when they can get it) are Greg, Darren, Barry and Staunch.

But Taylor never caricatures his creations: he has the happy knack of allowing the reader to quickly identify with his characters (or against them – there are several we might dearly like to dislike) before adroitly developing a depth or aspect that moves the character beyond our predictions, beyond ordinariness, so that they are like us, yet individual and different. And through that sameness-yet-difference, the characters offer us a fresh perspective on our own world.

Taylor is not a writer to be labelled with a genre. His gentle, wry humour sits as comfortably in the soap-operatic American-style title story and the almost slapstick “Uncle Mick and the Great Outdoors”, as it does in the poignant boy-to-manhood tale of “A Man’s Estate”. And then, lest we think Taylor is mainly a humorist, we discover “The Gift” where a quirky, comic scenario develops to a shocking conclusion.

Nor does Taylor lean to gender preference. The majority of the stories are written from the male point of view, such as the tantalising reminiscences in “Tradesman’s Rates” and the sexual anxiety and release of “The Supper Waltz”, but Taylor writes equally effectively through a female perspective. Two of the stories deal, in quite different ways, with multiple generations of women within one family, as in “Tina & Sharon & Myra & Vi on a Saturday Night” and “Three Women”. The latter, one of the longer pieces in the collection, is an early (1972) example of Taylor’s ability to describe events and relationships almost entirely through dialogue and brief internal reflections, often conveying more to the reader through what is not said (or thought) than what is.

In his introduction the author writes that the sole exception to the selection criteria for this collection (aimed at young adults) is a “tale … for all ages”, “The Third Day”. I disagree. After reading, and re-reading this collection, I believe all these stories have universal, cross-generational appeal. Like the marauding rats that feasted on his manuscripts, I wanted more.

4

At seventeen, Ash McAndrew feels he’s got his life sussed. He’s friendly, works hard, has figured out how to avoid confrontation with his stepfather, Rex, and generally keeps himself to himself. Then his stepbrother Sam, two years younger and light years away in personality traits, turns up, wet, cold and ready to party. And what parties! With devastating (and hilarious) accuracy, Beale propels the reader into the archetypal teenage end-of-term basement party: absent parents, noise, people, laughter, music, booze, vomiting, fighting, sex with the insensible, dope, window-smashing, and cops. When the scrummage from a fight on the front lawn finally pulls back, there’s a dead kid too. A sixteen-year-old, too stoned or too concussed to escape asphyxiation.

And that’s just the first two chapters.

Death pulls these kids up short. But not for long. Sam is an irrepressible, restless party animal with built-in resistance to Ash’s attempts to rein him in. Even comparisons with his drinking, abusive father fail to impress. In cheerful denial of his own lack of self-control, Sam explains: “He’s a loser. Doesn’t know when to stop, that’s his trouble.” So Sam parties on amid regular rescues (by Ash) from detox cells; he fights (literally) on behalf of the weak and helpless; he captivates Ash’s mother with his sincerity and honest charm. Deep down, under the “live for the moment” bravado, this is one nice kid. Shame that, one way or another, the booze is going to kill him.

Beale paints a disturbingly believable picture of the teen drinking scene. These kids aren’t hoons: they’re a convincing cross-section of New Zealand youth, out to have a good time, trying to figure out for themselves how to live their lives. Not all of them employ alcohol to boost self-esteem or to wipe out reality – Ash’s preferred method is to stay aloof. Through Sam’s blunt observations, Ash begins to see the negative effect of being “not good at this friend stuff”. Ash’s relationships with his mother and with the outspoken, attractive Marie begin to bloom.

Then crisis hits.

Beale achieves this climactic, unexpected (incredibly, Sam is not involved), turning-point in the novel – and in the life of the main protagonist – with remarkable force. The emotional turmoil of a seventeen-year-old, the struggle and the frustrations of dealing with crisis and its aftermath, the warmth and value of friends, are all powerfully conveyed. Keep the tissues handy: I needed them.

Further Back than Zero is first of all a great read, well-paced, funny and highly accessible to a teen readership. It tackles a huge problem head-on and does so with humour and respect, mercifully free of moralising. And the title? At the funeral of the young man who died at the party, his band plays one of his favourite songs: “I’m further back than zero / On the hard road to your heart / You wanted a hero / But I just didn’t fill the part.”

Pat Quinn is a Wellington writer. Her latest book, Go Horatio!, will be reviewed in our June issue

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Posted in Children and Literature
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