Heed the tale, not the teller, Ruth Brown

One Night Out Stealing
Alan Duff,
Tandem Press, $24.95

Affluence, it seems, is vindicated. Whereas Once Were Warriors exposed the anguish of the dispossessed, One Night Out Stealing is more concerned with reassurances for the well-to-do that their good fortune is merited.

A university degree and a well-paid job give access to the Good Life, which includes a spacious home, Persian carpets, marble surfaces in the bathroom and a holiday home in the Sounds. It is easy to scoff at the equation between material wealth and happiness, but one of Duff’s fine achievements is to show the dishonesty of such ridicule when it is accompanied by the romantic illusion that working-class austerity is ennobling. Instead, life for the non-possessing is shown to be a meaningless existence eked out in ‘working-class shit-holes’, supported either by an ‘arsehole of a demeaning job’, ‘wild dreams and dumb schemes’ of criminals or just by hanging in until dole day. The novel recreates an 18th-century perspective in which life is nasty, brutish and short, except for the civilised few who have a certain financial competence. Elinor Dashwood puts the price of happiness at £1000 a year (circa 1800), Penelope Harland thinks that $300,000 is not excessive; and they are probably talking about similar amounts for the gratification of similar desires, not just for grace and comfort in their surroundings, but also for good books and music and enough leisure to enjoy them.

Seen through Sonny Mahia’s eyes, these advantages are heavenly, ‘a kind of perfection’, pointing to ‘the possibility of life triumphing over the goneness of life’. Assuming he is right, and that fine surroundings and music really can convey such blessings, the crucial question the novel poses is: how can they be acquired? In part, Duff the novelist makes this seem as easy as Duff the columnist says it is. There is no sense that existing structures need to be changed so that the joys of heaven are more equally distributed. When Sonny says, ‘I wanna turn this fuckin life around … But how?’, part of the answer given is that he should make more effort: instead of cracking open another can or being misled by Jube, he should see that it’s himself that’s the problem. He slates his parents for not introducing him to classical music: ‘It was all there all this damn time and no one’d told him.’

However, the novel reveals a situation rather more complex than a heaven of opportunities there all the time for the taking. Sonny’s life is turned around only at the point of death, and his experience of beauty and innocence in fantasy at the end points to his creator’s difficulty in showing how it could have happened in reality earlier. Sonny can briefly know the god within himself in response to the soaring crescendos of Slavonic liturgy, but he cannot stay indefinitely in his tiny room, insulated for ever from a sense of un-godlike worthlessness daily confirmed either by some arsehole of a demeaning job, or by no job at all. Only by dying for her can he share in the beauty of Penelope’s life to which he had been so passionately drawn. He cannot even ensure that the next generation knows that universities, like classical music, have been there all the damn time, because a society centred on Tavistocks bar appears not to have a next generation: children are scarcely mentioned, nor are women except as sex objects.

The idea of a dispossessed class capable of salvation is effectively obliterated. The evasions necessary to maintain the idea that anyone can be rich and successful are exposed in One Night Out Stealing, and it is about the state of the world rather than the state of the nation. Apart from a (fairly muted) suggestion that Maori are both more susceptible to weakness and more worthy of redemption than Pakeha, this is not a particularly New Zealand novel: with a few changes, Tavistocks could be in a poor suburb anywhere, its clientele appearing to confirm Auberon Waugh’s belief that the lower classes are extraordinarily cruel and unpleasant people, but also, through the life and death of Sonny Mahia, showing that within existing structures there is nowhere else for them to go.

One Night Out Stealing endorses the philosophy of the New Right, and invites the affluent to congratulate themselves on their refinement and virtue, join Neighbourhood Watch, and dismiss as inevitably depraved the underclass that lives on their doorstep. But by heeding the tale and not the teller we can see just how flawed that philosophy is.


Ruth Brown is an expatriate New Zealander living in Sussex.



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