Bent on purgation, Laurence Jenkins

Long Loop Home: A Memoir 
Peter Wells
Vintage, $27.95,
ISBN 1869414683

The body language in the photograph forecasts much about the story between the covers of Peter Wells’s Long Loop Home. A Memoir. Three figures pose on a deserted beach, a woman and two boys, in bathing costumes of the 1960s. A mother and her sons? (Was the fourth person, behind the camera, a family member? the father, perhaps, symbolically excluded from the picture?) The younger boy turns toward the woman, held by her protecting arm across his shoulders. The elder boy stands a bit apart, though he, too, is held by her other arm, not quite so tightly, across his wider shoulders.

Inside those covers we learn that the younger of the two boys is Peter Wells and the older one his brother Russell. The woman is indeed their mother, around whom most of this tale is centred. Her strengths and weaknesses are relentlessly examined and re-examined under her son’s reflective eye.

Wells, who is an important figure in both fiction and non-fiction in New Zealand, is pigeon-holed as a “gay” writer (a label that irritates him) and as a film-maker. The irony of the former tag is revealed by the astonishing confession that he spent much of his adolescence and early adulthood in the closet. He was inwardly denying his homosexuality to compensate for the shame brought on the family by his brother Russell’s brazen seductions around Point Chevalier’s enclosed beach community. Russell, the boy who pulls away from Mum in the photograph, actually pulled away from home before he turned 20, establishing himself as an artist and living openly “out” in Auckland. The tragedy of his illness and death from an AIDS-related condition adds to the misery of this story.

2

The act of writing in this book seems to have been a ritual which, approaching the age of 50, the author had to perform before he could live the rest of his life. There is much pain here, both endured and inflicted. What is most to be admired is the absolute honesty. Wells is least kind to himself on all fronts, but especially severe when he examines his juvenile hypocrisy:

I was trying to cut out my homosexuality, I see now. I see this with a startling clarity, thirty-four years later. At the time I could not understand it. All I knew was that within me was the possibility that I would become a maniac – if I accepted for one moment what I actually was. I would either kill someone or, alternatively, and in a very messy and violent way, kill myself.

 

Before he made his name as a writer, Wells thought of himself as a film-maker. He was intoxicated with the cinema, and on Sundays, “those long, still Sundays as a youth”, when his parents indulged in golf and church respectively – one knows for certain which one did which – he watched old movies on television. They had the same effect on him that they had on many of us: “When I think of my youth, my real life seemed to be lived out in those movies …” The rococo style of some of the old Hollywood musicals and costume dramas certainly emerged in his most celebrated film, Desperate Remedies, which he both wrote and co-directed. And yet, that film is essentially a New Zealand one, about New Zealand and unmistakably made here.

In this book the prose is opulent, to say the least. Peter Wells has never been afraid to use the English language’s flexible syntax; and for the most part he is very artful in his arrangement of words:

Like a piece of fruit left to steep in liquid in a preserving jar, I seemed to be turning, even as a child, through degrees of ripeness and succulence into a vinegary state whereby on the outside I still looked perfectly all right or the same, but whatever chemical constituents made up my being had actually begun to change.

 

Occasionally, one has to pause to ponder exactly what is meant.

But his final surrender to his own sexuality is wonderfully reported:

To a certain extent I came out in Sydney. I had my first adult sexual encounter there. I got fucked in Sydney. I realise this looks like something defiantly scrawled on a wall, and in a way it is. But I say it with a certain amount of insouciance, based on affection towards this accommodating old whore of a city. I was in my twenty-second year – by this time I felt very old … Each slightly awkward step seemed a walk into a new life. I knew, in whatever confused yet victorious way, I had attained something. I had become a unified person.

 

If one subscribes to Freud’s hothouse theories, then Peter Wells’s life would make a good case study. Both his mother and grandmother were ideal queer-makers; his mother continues to loom large.

3

Three episodes stayed with me long after I had put this book aside. In the most powerful of them, the boy Peter sees a doll in a stationer’s window and develops an all-consuming passion for it:

 “You are mine,” her small painted eyes said to me without so much as a blink …

I was a boy.

She was a doll.

A boy does not want a doll.

 

The disruption caused by this requited love, boy for doll, doll for boy, was monumental enough to change the family dynamic entirely. His relationship with his father, and there-fore with his mother, changed, as he flatly states, “for ever”.

Another revelation, and this one had a very personal resonance for me, was the description of his army medical examination and his anxieties leading up to it. The fears that he would react to the sight of other naked young men by becoming aroused; the sureness that his own effeminacy would be a give-away; and then the sudden determination born out of panic not to buy into ritual humiliation and ridicule but to tell the doctor of his homosexuality – all brought tears of recognition. I had done the same thing for the same reasons and out of the same kind of panic, many years ago. It is one of the strongest parts of this narrative, and not merely because it strikes chords in me, but because the writer has obviously turned the episode over in his memory for a long time and is able to bring unsparing objectivity to bear in the telling.

The third unforgettable episode really occurs first, chronologically. Wells’s grandmother, his mother’s mother, from Napier, features less than her daughter in the story only because she died while her grandsons were still early adolescents. Hawke’s Bay privilege and the class attitude – which is denied but implicitly treasured in that province – are personified in her. Wells and his mother go to visit her – she was diabetic, had just had a toe amputated, and the reason for the visit was to “look after” her – and it is clear that “Kutz”, as she is called by her daughter, is the dominant one of the two. Proud and independent, she makes it clear that she is not in need of caregivers, and that the attentions visited upon her are unwelcome. With the perceptiveness of a child who is an old man, Wells understands his mother’s implicit position, which he adopts as his own: “My grandmother could use the income from a sizeable estate while she was alive … but on her death the estate would pass on to … the three daughters, one of whom was my mother.” The chilling realisation in the child that his grandmother’s death would bring economic freedom to his family is terrible.

I was often exhausted by the way the author was bent, no pun intended, on purgation. Yet, those who’ve grown or are growing up homosexual will find themselves crying
over and over again, “Yes! I know!”

 

Laurence Jenkins is a Wellington reviewer.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more