Most significant work in NZ realism, Lawrence Jones

Crime Story
Maurice Gee
Penguin, $29.95

The Fat Man
Maurice Gee
Viking, $15.95

In 1977, writing a letter to the Listener, Maurice Shadbolt commented that although he was “far more interested as a writer, in nineteenth century New Zealand”, he had been “seduced by the sight and sensation” of contemporary New Zealand life “in the absence of anyone else tidying it into tales”. He then added the parenthetical remark that this observation was “less true now than it was a decade ago, with the likes of Maurice Gee at large”.

He probably had in mind Gee’s Games of Choice, which had appeared the previous year and had been recognised for the way in which it “so deftly and economically delineated” New Zealand “suburban life of the sixties and seventies”. That novel, Gee’s fourth, confirmed the direction that had been marked by his third, In My Father’s Den, in 1972. In his first two novels, The Big Season (1962) and A Special Flower (1965), he had written works that were clearly “late provincial” in their outlooks, dealing with the residual puritanism, provinciality and propriety from the past rather than with the new, “post‑provincial” society. In In My Father’s Den, he had focused on residual puritanism, but within the context of a very different society, the difference being evident in the transformation of “Wadesville” (his first fictional incarnation of Henderson) between the 1930s and the 1960s.

When Shadbolt wrote, Gee would still probably have been viewed by most readers as a “promising” novelist (at 45) but not a major figure. However, at just that time he made the break to becoming a fulltime writer and wrote Plumb, the novel which proclaimed his major status and which is still probably his best‑known work. The other novels of the Plumb trilogy, Meg and Sole Survivor, followed in 1981 and 1983. In one sense these novels could not be seen as “contributing to the contemporary record”, in Shadbolt’s terms, for they looked back on the past and the more contemporary parts of the last of them were the weakest part of the trilogy.

However, their stance in relation to the provincial past was definitely a post‑provincial one, with a depth of historical understanding and acceptance quite beyond that which writers of the period itself had had in relation to it. In Prowlers (1987) and Going West (1993), Gee again dealt with the past in a contemporary context, but with a greater success with the society of the narrative present than in Sole Survivor, while in The Burning Boy (1990) he focused entirely on the present. Crime Story continues in that vein, both in what it tells and in the way of telling.

In its Way of telling Crime Story relates back not only to The Burning Boy but to a whole group of Gee’s earlier works. At least as early as “The Losers” in 1959, he had perfected the use of a shifting omniscient third‑person point of view to present the ways in which a varied group of characters respond to a dramatic central event or sequence of events and he adapted it to the novel in Games of Choice, where the viewpoint is extended to only two characters, and then in The Burning Boy, a virtuoso performance in which there are multiple shifts in viewpoint. This method differs sharply from Gee’s more characteristic method of a retrospective first‑person narrator moving backwards and forwards in memory through various layers of narrative time, a method first used in In My Father’s Den, developed further in the Plumb trilogy and Prowlers, and ingeniously varied in Going West.

Crime Story, like The Burning Boy, has a variety of focalising characters instead of a single narrator. Gwen Peet, the primary one, is like some of Gee’s first‑person narrators such as Noel Papps or Jack Skeat in being a thoughtful spectator who looks at the present in light of the past. In this she is contrasted with her ex‑husband, Howie, who tries to live only in the present, as do also in different ways the other main focalisers, Brent Prosser and his sister Leanne. Their viewpoints are supplemented by rather more brief presentations from the angles of Howie and Gwen’s sons, Athol and Gordon. The two victims of violent crime in the novel, Athol’s wife Ulla and Brent’s fence Mrs Ponder, each have the point of view for only one paragraph, for the novel is not primarily about them but about the reactions of the others to the crimes.

In his first‑person narratives Gee has shown himself to be master of a variety of voices. This is most strikingly evident in the Plumb trilogy, where the narrative voices of George Plumb, his daughter Meg and her son Raymond differ markedly, but it is also true of the other novels, for Paul Pior in In My Father’s Den, Noel Papps in Prowlers, and Jack Skeat in Going West likewise have recognisable styles. The third-person narratives present a somewhat different problem. We do not hear the narrating voices of the different focalising characters, but we do enter into their minds by means of free, indirect thought and interior monologue and those consciousnesses are differentiated in terms of their distinctive vocabularies, figures of thought and ranges of reference.

Gee does this masterfully in Crime Story. Gwen’s literary allusions, precise verbal distinctions and geographical‑psychological metaphors (“boundaries”) mark her off from Leanne, with her demotic, earthy terms and her images from rugby league or the culture of poverty (“Solos were like cockroaches, they sent a pest eradicator around”). Both differ from Brent, with his envious awareness of Reeboks as against Lasers, or Howie, with his vigorous business language (“the cowboys, the quick‑flick boys, went out in ’87”). This is the writing of an author totally in control of his materials.

The way of telling is there, of course, as a means, not as an end in itself. It serves to present a picture of New Zealand society. In his work Gee has touched on a range of institutions: schools, local body and national politics, rugby, racing, boxing, business both small and large, science, literature, the church. He has ranged through social classes at least from the upper‑lower to the upper‑middle, However, he has remarked upon his awareness of limitations, saying that he knows the middle class of the suburbs but that there are “places where [he] can only be a tourist, a distressing thing to discover in one’s own country”.

But he has also said that he wants “to go everywhere, and find out what’s going on”. Crime Story is partly an expression of that desire. While it centres on Kelburn, it reaches out to the world of solo mums, welfare beneficiaries and crime. Crime and violence have always been Gee obsessions, from the criminality of Bill Walters in The Big Season to the murders of In My Father’s Den, Meg, Sole Survivor and Going West and the violent crime and attempted rape of The Burning Boy. However, in those novels violence is something that breaks in upon the middle‑class characters and the criminal is seen from the outside. Here we see Brent Prosser from within from that riveting first chapter in which his careful plans for a trouble‑free theft slide into unpremeditated violence until his death. Perhaps Gee gained more than bridging money from writing scripts for Mortimer’s Patch.

Gee also extends his range upwards on the economic ladder in the novel, to include a convincing picture of the post‑ 1984 capitalist “development” world. Howie Peet is a “natural” in that world, one for whom Rogernomics opened up “the freedom to do things”, a freedom he has used well. But he also recognises the “bad side of deregulation”, the opportunities it gave to the “shifty and dirty little sods” who “bloody rob everyone”, the types his son Gordon has got mixed up with, “Roger’s real children”. He is contrasted nicely to Gordon, who slips into fraud from a pitiful desire to make it and prove himself, and Athol, who scorns the players on the “money‑go‑round” and attempts to find an antihuman security in the more traditional role of the careful rentier in control of his little world.

Always at the centre of Gee’s social world has been the family. He has presented us with a wonderful range of domestic experience, from Trevor Jones’ alliance with his mother against school authority in “Schooldays” to the senile Mr Pitt‑Rimmer’s battles with his ancient daughters in “A Glorious Morning Comrade”. The Plumbs, the Petleys of Going West, the contrasting Birtles and Rounds of The Burning Boy ‑ he has created a vivid gallery of families and marriages. Here he extends that range with the picture of Leanne as solo mum with her Sam and with the broken marriage of the Peets, with the effects of Howie’s natural egotism and Gwen’s judgmental pride evident in the middle‑aged Athol and Gordon. This social world focusing upon the domestic is not as densely realised as the worlds of Plumb, Meg, Prowlers, The Burning Boy or Going West, which is perhaps to say that Crime Story is not Gee’s best novel, but it is nonetheless a very good one, one in which he extends his range and one in which he expresses once again that dark, humane vision of life which his readers have come to expect of him.

For it is finally not for his contributions to the social record that we turn to Gee, but for his moral and psychological understanding of life. Despite the keen social observation and the range, Crime Story is not a social problem novel such as, say, Fiona Kidman’s True Stars. Gee is as aware as Kidman is of the social problems brought upon us by the “sons of Roger”, but his novel does not radiate political anger, as hers does, but rather a concern with moral and psychological growth (or the failure to grow). His characters must act in a dark or at best morally neutral world in which they must make their own meanings. Their social environment, unlike their natural universe, is ultimately the result of human choices, but for the individual most of it is beyond his or her control, a given, like nature, to which they must adapt.

Social dislocation, unemployment, even the lack of loving mothering that Brent Prosser feels are primarily environmental factors they must live with, and Gee focuses on their attempts to play the arbitrary hands they have been dealt. He does not so much praise or blame as simply observe and attempt to understand what they do, though there can be no doubt which adaptations he most values. He has said: “The movement in my novels is always towards knowledge ‑ self‑knowledge in the characters, and they get there, they have their victories, all of them”.

But some of the victories are greater than others and some of the characters welcome self‑knowledge while others flee it. Brent has tried to make his place and meet his needs by being a professional thief, but when he finds himself in a corner and lashes out against Ulla Peet, the result is more than he can handle and he is destroyed. His violence against Ulla utterly disrupts her life, but she moves towards a kind of moral victory in facing her situation and exercising her existential freedom to choose to go on living or not. The challenge of relating to Ulla and the results of her plight brings Gwen to a new self‑knowledge, a realisation of her own pride and judgment and how they have cut her off from others and estranged her from herself. Perhaps a bit patly, she finds that “in giving herself to Ulla she took possession of herself”. These are moral victories, however pyrrhic.

Howie’s victory is more equivocal. He is forced to recognise the limits of his own energy and egotism, to accept the past that he would like to forget, to face that life is more complex than he would like it to be. At the same time he discovers intense love for his grandson, a love that he pays for by a stroke, the worst thing that could happen to a man of his energy and ambition. His younger son, Gordon, achieves a kind of victory in facing the failure and dishonesty of his ambitions and in taking responsibility for his own life, choosing not to kill himself. The seemingly more successful Athol, on the other hand, runs away from the challenge presented by his wife’s plight and refuses to face that he cannot create an insulated world in which he can be entirely safe. Leanne Prosser, in contrast, finds in her love of her son the strength to assert herself against abuse and to make a kind of life, limited as it may be by circumstances. These moral and psychological struggles are the real story of Crime Story, and his vivid presentation of them is Gee’s finest accomplishment in the book.

It is not entirely unfair to Gee’s work to relegate discussion of The Fat Man to a kind of epilogue. Gee has accumulated a significant body of work in his writing for children: this is his eighth children’s novel, as against eleven for adults. But he would be first to say that his writing for children is secondary, a way of subsidising his adult novels. He has said that he is writing within strict generic limitations, in this case those of the kidult realist thriller (as in The Fireraiser and, to a lesser extent, The Champion), something “on a very different level” from the work of Margaret Mahy.

The result is an eminently readable book with a strong sense of place (Loomis once again, his transformed Henderson) and time (1933 and the Great Depression), great narrative momentum (something it shares with Crime Story), expressing Gee’s concern with crime and violence but without the full expression of his psychological and moral vision in the characters. However, without really exploring it, the book remains consistent with that vision, which surfaces in various ways: in the fine characterising touches with the Potter parents (who relate closely to Meg and Fergus Sole and to the Petley parents, with the same autobiographical sources); in the way in which Colin Potter, the young hero, is forced to see that the terrible Fat Man, Herbert Muskie, is what he is at least partly because he was bullied as a child by Colin’s father; in the private moral victory that Colin achieves in doing what he can to pay that moral debt to Muskie, even when he is resisting him.

The book is obviously written by a major writer, even if with his left hand, and is justified in its own terms as well as in making the adult novels possible. Younger New Zealand readers are fortunate that Gee needs to write such books to support his adult fiction, but all New Zealand readers are in his debt for that adult fiction, the most significant body of work in New Zealand realism, one that not only contributes to the contemporary record but also presents a moving psychological and moral vision.

Lawrence Jones is Associate Professor of English at Otago University.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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