The Burning Boy
Viking, Auckland, 1990, $39.95
The Burning Boy does for Nelson what Bonfire of the Vanities did for New York. It submits, that is, a community to scorching scrutiny. It constructs a narrative form exactly appropriate to embody and evince that community’s workings. And it deals in a realism so intensely particularised that, under pressure, it becomes imbued with deeper, even surrealist meanings, especially through the imagery of fire. My opening remark was not a Pseuds’ Corner jest. If Wolfe, like Dickens, created a fiction megalopolitan in every glittering fibre, Gee has devised one which is entirely, unrepentantly, painstakingly provincial. For New Zealand fiction that is an important task, for our centre is the world’s margin. Maurice Gee’s Saxton – ‘remote, but the world passes through’ – is a confessedly small and isolated town on the edge of a small and isolated country. That The Burning Boy is never trivial, never mean, and never parochial is a measure of its craft and intelligence. It is a small-town novel of a high order (which would also fit Middlemarch).
In one early section the narrator – a more assured and complicit voice than Gee has been able to adopt before – gives a guidebook introduction to Saxton/Nelson; and then takes the lid off. After listing the sunshine hours and enthusing about the beaches, the potteries, the wines, ‘Look harder,’ he cautions. ‘Stay around a while and keep your eyes open’. And he tells us about unemployment and glue-sniffing, vagrants and violence, petty crime and gross speculation. That passage is like the experience of reading the whole novel. It opens smearily in rain, a woman peering through a school window between wet leaves, moves through drought and ends in the searing clarity of fire. At first we see scars, badges, hairstyles, architecture, and other façades like careers, and then as our eyes adjust we discern and must confront the underlying constants of the human mind and body – sex violence, power, territory, incest, death, compassion, survival. It is not by chance that a wet window opens the text, and a telescope closes it. Gee has always dealt subtly with life’s lookers-on, the voyeurs, the caring contemplatives. Here again the two central characters spend much of their time watching others’ lives, and only later claim life of their own. One is the scarred fire-victim, Duncan Round, a disconcertingly worldlywise fifteen-year-old with a photographic memory, a droll sense of humour, and a telescope (a worthy 1990s successor, maybe, to The God Boy). The other is the Girls’ College principal, Norma Schwass, who seems constrained by her career and widowhood to supporting and manipulating others, but then disconcertingly (again that is the right word) encounters horror, loss and love, on her own commonsensical terms.
The Gee drop-outs are here again, too – the wise Norwegian traumatised by war, the housewife diminished by grief to cigarettes and curlers, the teacher who goes among goats, in some memorable sequences, to lose sophistication and find unaccommodated man and the tiling itself. To allude to ‘Lear’ will, I hope, counter any impression that this is a simple or predictable replay of Gee preoccupations, and also suggest that the issues are large and the treatment compelling. At one level it is almost a sensation novel, with terrible disfigurement, robbery with violence, teenage promiscuity, drunken incest, unexpected love, death by fire and a splendidly despicable villain. The treatment of this monster indicates the other levels. He is everything our contemporary New Zealand intelligentsia detests – successful, empowered, a patriarchal chauvinist sexual harasser, even, if you can bear it, good at golf. But Gee, far too intelligent to be satisfied with such labels, very late and very quietly sketches the working-class origins and mother-driven compulsion which have shaped him. To understand is not to forgive, for Gee is always a moralist; but understanding itself is for him a form of morality.
In the end, though, Tom Round like all villains suffers an unspeakable fate. He has to leave Nelson and move to Wellington. So The Burning Boy like most of its characters, meditates on life and seeks clarity. Lex the goat man seeks it by ‘narrowing down … to that minimal I’, Norma the headteacher by trying to ‘unite the valuable things in the primitive and the civilised states’, the Round daughters by confronting ‘the man in the stocking mask’ in the form of their own father, Duncan by breaking out from scars to stars and thus learning compassion; and the Birtles daughters, the softball pitcher and the champion runner, each gaining self-esteem through the knowledge that ‘she was better with her body than any of them’. This is a new dimension for Gee, and recurs. There are no simplicitudes. Perplexity and ‘double vision’ are a fact of life. Even the cat is called, often enough for the paradox to be noticed, ‘nice little devil’.
The text, calm and controlled, weaves delicately in and out among the characters’ minds and the narrator’s. But it is vivid in action and humanity, too. The New Zealand novel is often good at teenagers, but has had none so truthfully sexy and damaged as these. It has been less good at party scenes, so the New Year’s cavorting here of the provincial élite at play should be prized for its wickedly nimble camera-work. There is a new power, even for Gee’s long line of funny/ sad old Alzheimer victims, in the comic brutality with which this one dies. And in that outbreak of violence, as in the moving, frank sex scenes and the strong, lucid reportage of the fire, Gee looks good where previously he has been most weak, in the big moments. Perhaps he has gained from writing so well for children. One last point. This is not a bicultural novel in the fashionable sense. But in its care for unpretentious Ken Birtles, softball coach, fish factory maintenance man, former Middlesborough United fan, it adds an important strand to our culture that 1990 forgot. The Burning Boy is mature enough to take that risk; mature in the sense of wine, full-bodied, complex to the palate, and redolent of the area from which it is grown.
Roger Robinson is Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington.