Iain Sharp: Beyond the pale

State Ward
Alan Duff
Random House, $17.95

I realise that almost everyone is bone-weary by now of the wrangling over the Faber Book of Contemporary South Pacific Stories and its shameful “Note on Absences”. All the same, I cannot resist drawing attention to an absence not hitherto noted. Alan Duff is missing from the Faber anthology. Geography, I confess, is not my strongest subject and the Pacific Ocean has always confused me. Still, I feel pretty sure of my facts when I say that, with the possible exception of Mario Vargas Llosa (who is also excluded from the Faber anthology), no fiction writer from the South Pacific has attracted more readers in the last five years than Alan Duff. So why isn’t he in?

A partial answer is that Duff writes novels, not short stories. There’s no mention of shortness in the title, however. After the withdrawal of Grace, Hulme, Ihimaera and Wendt, editor C K Stead had space to have published the entire text of Duff’s State Ward, which isn’t much more than 30,000 words (although it has been cunningly puffed up by Random House with large print, repeated illustrations and blank pages so that it fills, or seems to fill, a whole book). What intrigues me is that Duff’s absence from the anthology went generally unnoticed. Only because I was asked to write an essay about Duff that I notice his non‑appearance now. Why didn’t it seem odd to anybody that an anthology of fiction largely concerned with race relations in the South Pacific should make no mention of the author of that kind of fiction whose books outsell anyone else’s (or everyone else’s put together)? I think the reason is that within New Zealand’s literary circles (that is, PEN members and people who habitually read, or at least flick through, Sport, Landfall and New Zealand Books) Duff is now generally considered beyond the pale. Non‑literary, in other words. Increasingly, the temptation is to lump him in the same category as Barry Crump. A barbarous bestseller. Raw, naive, uncouth, undisciplined, repetitive. A little more deplorable with each successive book.

I find this depressing, because I still have faith in Duff’s potential as a fiction writer. I wish he would come swinging back with a crackerjack novel to dumbfound his critics. I wish he’d get off his bloody soapbox and concentrate on constructing the fast‑moving, punchy fables that are his real strength. Duff has been judged on the accuracy of his sociology rather than the efficacy of his spells. Once Were Warriors is set mainly on a rundown housing estate called Pine Block on the outskirts of a town called Two Lakes. Readers have generally assumed that Two Lakes is based on Rotorua, the town where Duff grew up. Yet there’s no trace of the Rotorua familiar to most New Zealanders in the novel. There’s no mention of boiling mud or sulphur or concert parties or Arawa carvings. “Second lake” is a more appropriate translation of the Maori place name Rotorua than “two lakes”, for there are actually 13 lakes in the Rotorua district. Some of those lakes are awesomely beautiful, but Duff focuses in Once Were Warriors on squalor rather than beauty. Is he writing about Rotorua? Not really. He selects some details and ignores others. There’s a place in Rotorua called the Ford Block which resembles Pine Block in some aspects, but Duff’s creation isn’t a photograph; it’s more like a sinister, exaggerated, George Grosz‑like cartoon. When Once Were Warriors first appeared in 1990, much of the debate it engendered was concerned with verisimilitude. Did urban Maori families really live like this? Or was Duff pandering to the racist fears of a pakeha audience? “This hard‑hitting novel is frank and uncompromising in its portrayal of Maori in New Zealand society,” said the blurb on the back cover. The grim, unvarnished truth, in other words. Rather than a brutal, overblown but insightful cartoon. The way I see it, though, Duff has such a strong tendency towards hyperbole that if he sets his mind to it, he could probably write satire as wildly funny as Epeli Hau’ofa’s great “Kisses in the Nederends”. As it is, his exaggerations are sometimes unintentionally comic. Once Were Warriors begins with Beth Heke gazing out the back window of her squalid state house at the firm and double‑storeyed mansion of Trambert, her white neighbour. If only her own people had  some of Trambert’s drive and initiative instead of being such bunch of apathetic, aimless, dole‑bludging, bill‑dodging, fist‑happy boozers. It would also help, she thinks, if they had few books. “And it occurred to Beth,” Duff tells us, apparently straight‑faced, “that her own ‑ no, not just her own house but every house she’d ever been in ‑ was bookless. The thought struck her like one of Jake’s punches, dunno why. So much so she had to get up and walk around, paced up and down the downstairs passage, smoking, unable to ease her agitation. Bookless. Bookless. We’re a bookless society. It kept hammering and hammering home.”

So much so, in fact, that not content with mere pacing, Beth has to ransack the whole house to verify her booklessness. She goes from room to room, looking in drawers and under beds. She finds some comics, a few sports magazines and a copy of Penthouse, but no books. At last she collapses, “feeling quite drained. Thinking over and over again: bookless. We’re bloody bookless, all of us.”

Once Duff gets hold of an idea, no matter how absurd, he has trouble letting it go. I was rather looking forward to a scene depicting Beth’s search not for books but the absence of books in Lee Tamahori’s recent film adaptation of Once Were Warriors, but this was one of the many incidents in the novel that Tamahori and the screenplay writer Riwia Brown decided to omit. The film often has a cartoon‑like quality too, particularly in the drinking and fighting sequences in the Royal Tavern (in the novel, the bar is called McClutchy’s), but generally Tamahori and Brown tend to cut down on Duff’s excesses, reducing the number of rapes, bashings and Heke children killed.

The other big change in the movie is to make Pine Block have less of the atmosphere of a totally isolated, inescapable ghetto. In the novel, Beth has mixed Maori and pakeha ancestry. Her maiden name is Ransfield. She cannot speak Maori and neither can Jake, her husband, or any of the children, or any of their neighbours, or any of their drinking companions. They’re not just bookless, but absolutely without tradition. They cannot leave Pine Block, because they have nowhere to go. In the film version, Beth has a rural Maori background and she returns to her marae when her daughter, Grace, commits suicide. Even Jake and his drunken cronies know the words of a couple of waiata in the movie’s party scenes.

In retrospect, I think it would have been much healthier for Duff’s career if reviewers of Once Were Warriors had commented more in 1990 on his tendency to exaggerate. Instead the response was generally ashen‑faced, hushed and wide‑eyed. That such things went on right here in Godzone! Who would ever have thought it? Duff, in turn, was rather surprised by the shocked reactions. Didn’t these pakeha critics ever read the newspapers? Did they really not know that poverty, crime, domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, unemployment, gang warfare, glue‑sniffing, homelessness and teenage suicides were problems among urban Maori?

Duff had worked hard on his style, yet nobody seemed to notice how different his syntax was in Once Were Warriors from other New Zealand novels. He was perfectly open about his influences, readily acknowledging that he owed a considerable debt to Hubert Selby, the American author best known for his sequence of six linked stories, Last Exit to Brooklyn. Once a passage of Duff’s is put alongside one of Selby’s the similarities are immediately striking. Here is Jake Heke musing on the subject of his favourite sport in Once Were Warriors:

Rumblin, man. LOVE IT. Rumblin. Talkin about it ‑ interrupting each other, climbin all over each other in their hast to get the password in. And havin this unnerstandin of sumpthin else about rumblin, the rhythm of it. Rumble in the jungle, member that dude? who was he again? Ali. Ali, man! What a fidah! Oh yea, what about Sugar Ray then? Sugah Ray? O far out! but he’s the ‑ And that dude foughtim that time wouldn’t fight no more, what’s his name ag ‑ Duran. Roberto Duran, man. Know what they callim in his, you know, wherever the fuck he comes from, language? Hands a Stone. Howzat?! Oh wow. Call me that, man, I’d love it. I seen tha scrap on my brutha’s video; man, what a fuckin rumble. He ain’t no wankah neither that Duran fulla. No? No, man. Well how come Sugar Ray wasted the cunt? Sugar Ray’d waste any cunt. I mean, he’s the ultimit rumblin machine.

Actin out their fistic her’s movies: Hey‑hey, watchme, watch me, this is Sugar Ray’s Bolo punch … ooooooo! ca‑boom! HAHAHAHA! In stitches. In an uproar. At the act bein so, uh, so true. Hey, what about this: ba‑boom‑boom‑daka‑duk‑duk-kapow! A Leonard combination, pictured in their minds with all the exclamation marks, the sounds, juss like out of a comic.

And here, as an almost random example, is an extract from “Double Feature”, a short story by Selby in 1963:

From making comments upon the action on the screen they progressed to prediction and then to direction: urging the girl-shy male star to kiss her, she won’t bite … tittering, laughing, reaching for the bottle (clink), watching the wine being poured into the cup (plop, plop, plop), putting the bottle back (clink) ‑ whatzamatta with that gay? is he nuts or something? If I had a broad like that runnin afta me I/d ‑ swaying, wine sloshing in the cups, laughing, swallowing, bubbling, choking, wine splashing on their noses, dribbling down their chins, dark spots blotted by pants and shirts ‑ reaching (clink), only a few drops left, watching the last drop plop into the cup still one left (clink); two empties; good show, eh Chubb? cups refilled getting soft and soggy, denied, don/t squeeze too tight, please don/t squeeze the banana ‑ held by the bottom in the palm of the hand); where/s the otha ones ‑ all gone ‑ no more haha ‑ the old familiar juice ‑ HUH HUH ‑ she slinks semidressed toward him; hair over the side of her face; hips liquid; rubs his cheeks then pushed her hands thru his hair, down his neck and back; sways in front of him, all virtues and charms (almost all) displayed; the voice throaty, begging … he asks her what she wants ‑ oooo whattsa matta? yacraze? HAHAHA.

Duff obviously studied his mentor with care, rioting the sudden shifts from first to third person narration, the suppressed nouns and articles, the absence of quotation marks, the fondness of gerunds, curse words, phonetic spellings, slang, sound effects, dots and dashes. I’m not suggesting any plagiarism on Duff’s part. He has thought hard about how to adapt Selby’s racy New York style to fit the speech patterns of urban New Zealand Maori.

Nobody wanted to discuss speech patterns or narrative techniques with Duff in 1990 or 1991. Instead, he was continually asked by newspaper and magazine editors for his views on how to solve the problems of poverty, crime, domestic violence, alcoholism and so forth among Maori city‑dwellers. It’s almost always fatal for fiction writers to begin thinking of themselves as spokespeople. (Look at James Baldwin. Look at Solzhenitsyn.) But Duff was seldom bashful about expressing his opinions. Maori people, he proclaimed ad nauseam in his syndicated newspaper column and later in his book Maori: the Crisis and the Challenge, ought to get off their rumps and do more for themselves instead of expecting handouts all the time.

Political gurus are usually tiresome and Duff is no exception. That’s why I urge him to return to his proper business, which is story‑telling. I’d like to see him lunge off in a bold new direction. His second novel, One Night Out Stealing (published in 1991) was largely a rehash of the McClutchy bar scenes from Once Were Warriors, with Duff keen to demonstrate his awareness that crime is not an exclusively Maori problem in New Zealand by presenting a white archloser, Jube, every bit as vicious and doomed as Jake Heke. His latest offering, State Ward, is a thin retelling of Boogie Heke’s story from Once Were Warriors, with unloved, rebellious, but basically good‑hearted 13‑year‑old Charlie sent, like Boogie, as a result of parental neglect (another theme Duff hammers) to Riverton Boys’ Home (the same name is used in both books). I think he can do better than this and I don’t think we (ie we readers of New Zealand “literature”) should abandon him just yet.

Iain Sharp is an Auckland journalist and critic.

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