Heart of the Volcano
Bookcaster Press, $20.00,
Calling the Fish & Other Stories
David Lyndon Brown
Otago University Press, $29.95,
Michael Morrissey’s Heart of the Volcano is the entertaining tale of Grant, who seeks out the dangers of Guatemala because of “Woman trouble”, because “Being alone is the key to adventure”, because “He doesn’t know what he is”:
Grant felt overwhelmed with a terrifying sense of peace. He was alone in a cage of birds – dazzlingly attired Guatemalan women displaying their pineapples and bananas …. The sole male present, he felt absorbed by their gaze which neither invited nor repelled. In that swooning instant he was conscious of the intense rich otherness of this sensual central American world …. Grant felt weak in this warm female atmosphere, he was losing his male separateness.
Morrissey captures brilliantly the psyche of the male coloniser, whose sense of self is utterly dependent on a sexuality so insecure that he has to take refuge in a Hemingway fantasy. The Guatemalans are just a flock of colourful extras in an exotic location to which the real men have come to find themselves. Suloski, the American cloud painter, would like to die with one hand on a paintbrush and the “other feeling the brown breast of a senorita”. The mandatory Brit, a retired Major Blewett, keeps losing his wife. The inscrutable Spaniard, Juan, doles out peyote as if he’s just stepped out of a Castaneda tale.
Then there are the unreal women. The “disagreeable” German girl, the covert focus of much of Grant’s guilty fascination, is a blonde cardboard-cutout nude, who has nothing to say except in hostile reaction to our hero’s intrusions. Back home in New Zealand, there’s Helen, who probably isn’t eagerly awaiting Grant’s return. Helen has “always been big on invisible forces”, but, through the filter of Grant’s one-track imagination, the Helen we see has all the depth of Rousseau’s Dream Venus.
We do get a glimpse of a potentially interesting character in Poppy, wife of Major Blewett, who seems to have accompanied the Major to Guatemala in the hope that the earth will “swallow him up”. She pops up in the middle of nowhere and addresses complete strangers with questions far more profound than the hackneyed observations they elicit in response:
“How far?” she had a French accent.
“To where?” asked Suloski.
“To where I’m going, monsieur.”
“About ten miles,” Suloski said.
“I think I’ll stop here.” The woman sat down on the rock …. She dropped the plaster cat into the dust.
“Actually I was looking for treasure.”
“Aren’t we all?” asked the artist.
“You sound tired,” said the woman. “Given up?”
Morrissey’s story is about jaded men, who know that they’ve already misspent all their energy pursuing the mastery of women. As Suloski says: “Women are a curse, aren’t they? You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. That’s why we have to climb mountains, right?” But Grant worries about the fact that women climb mountains too, and better than he can.
What the grumbling Heart of the Volcano boils down to, if you analyse all the clues Morrissey so archly presents, is that Grant can’t keep it up with women (he’s never got a relationship into “double figures”), because he’s so easily duped into believing that they have latent “muscle wasting disease”.
If only Grant could become a character in David Lyndon Brown’s book. If he could smell the roses, slay the phoney leopard on the book’s cover, deck out his boudoir with the skin, entertain women as fellow beings, and snuggle up to the muscle he so clearly admires, he’d die a happier man.
David Lyndon Brown’s Calling the Fish & Other Stories is what Morrissey’s story isn’t. I first came across “Calling the Fish” in a stripped-down version among the short short stories of The Third Century, where it leapt up at me like the one flash of magic in a hundred little brilliants. In Calling the Fish & Other Stories, that particular story becomes the magic heart of a story among stories so coherent that I’m tempted to see the book as a novel, with each chapter able to stand alone, but richer – more complete – in the company of its neighbours.
“To a point” – an in-joke here – this structure is the moral basis informing the stories as well. If the central character, Martin Glass, too often ends up being Man Alone, it isn’t through any terror on his part of losing himself in someone else, or catching some sort of muscle-wasting disease.
Martin has “leopardised” his home with gay abandon, and invited a world of people in to drink the “millions of gallons of vodka and wine and cider and beer that have been slugged” at his round table. On this golden table, Martin has, “in a reckless moment of drunken insight”, tried to lay out “the functions and aspirations of human beings” by stencilling “FAITH, SHIT, TRUST, FUCK, HONOUR, EAT, LOYALTY, PISS” around the edge. He has left out DRINK, but figures it “goes without saying”. In Brown’s double-edged words, “Honour’s wearing a bit thin.”
He’s had trouble with “Faith” too, but that’s been restored by “the beautiful couple” in “Faith” – the ethereal blonde and her attentive “swarthy” man with “powerful eyebrows” and “tooled boots”. He could have stepped out of Morrissey’s story, in which “Faith” is a female whom Grant has rejected, choosing instead to go to bed with “Hope”. Poor Grant. In Brown’s “The Triumph of Hope”, the name is merely a curse. And “Triumph” is bound to have a hollow ring to it.
There’s a great deal of darkness in Brown’s stories: blacked eyes, broken hearts, wounded egos, people so caught up in denial that they can’t be real about anything much. There’s also a lot of death – another word that doesn’t get laid on the table. But while death is just a con for the gullible Grant in Morrissey’s story, dying and death go for much more than just “saying” in Brown’s.
Here is the triumph. While Morrissey’s “real” men alone fail to understand the delusory nature of the power they feel shut out of, Brown’s inherently “illegitimate” characters already know that, in patriarchal terms, their lives are more or less meaningless. The confidence trick of deferred pleasure and power for the ultimate reward is never an option – except for those in denial. And, in these stories (or any others, for that matter), denial is the major source of tension and unhappiness. Life has to be loved in the here and now.
Love and Charity aren’t stencilled onto Martin’s golden table either, but “falling into a kind of love” is the commonest accident befalling these characters. Godfrey learns to see himself as the willing father of an autistic child. Crippled old Mr Glass discovers a secret joy in the “queer and different” place his local mall has become. A small boy is delightfully rescued by a “big brown man” in “Why I Never Learned to Swim”. Heather, watching her brother die of Aids while the scent of roses enters his “draped and festooned” bedroom, suddenly sees that: “No … It’s not awful at all. It’s so beautiful I can hardly believe it.”
To call Brown’s stories “warm and uplifting” would be to make them sound much less than the funny, queen-sized, bitchy, clever, sad, gay, and totally unsentimental stuff they are, but there is real treasure here. This is joyful, beautiful, wishful, magical writing:
I imagine a marlin leaping, leaving a comet trail of blue light …. And I see Joe standing on the prow, looking down into the water, and all the fish of all the seas and the rivers poised far below, motionless like memories, like wishes, waiting to be called.
Vivienne Jepsen is a Wellington writer.