Sidewinder as demon, Bernie Steeds

Alistair Campbell,
Reed Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Readers first meet Sidewinder about half way through Alistair Campbell’s 1989 novel The Frigate Bird. The novel’s narrator — a Cook Islands-born writer prone to rather extreme flights of fancy — is living in a New Zealand mental hospital when he meets the character. ‘I call him Sidewinder’, he writes, because of his habit of sidling up to you as if he is about to sell you a dirty postcard’. Sidewinder ‑ mischief maker, pickpocket and demon ‑ steals the show from a bizarre cast in The Frigate Bird and his choice as the title character in the sequel is a wise one.

In Sidewinder the narrator has moved to Penrhyn Island and married an Island woman, Tia. In his happiness he has cast Sidewinder from his mind. However, as he is plagued by his inability to father a child, the demon reappears and again becomes a dominant presence with his attempts to force the narrator to sign away his soul. This time Sidewinder is joined by two other demons, the Laurel-and-Hardy-like Belial and Beelzebub.

Sidewinder like The Frigate Bird is filled with an array of odd and endearing characters. Among the strongest in Sidewinder are two feuding Penrhyn elders ‑ a builder, famous for his powerful oral poetry based on Island legends, and a judgmental preacher who finds solace in his rival’s death.

It is a book which raises grand themes ‑ spirituality, culture change and conflict and gender roles (is the narrator a real man if he can’t father a child?) ‑ without ever taking them too seriously. Sidewinder contains many successful, self-contained episodes, which often build to comic climaxes. The links result from two quests for things the narrator cannot or will not provide: Tia wants his children, Sidewinder wants his soul.

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, Sidewinder’s imagination and desire to fulfil his mission appear to dwindle. More could have been made, too, of an apparent conflict between. Sidewinder and the other demons. Sidewinder remains entertaining and acutely observed to the end, but it loses dramatic tension, and its climax is not altogether convincing.


Bernie Steeds is a Nelson journalist.


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