Secker & Warburg, $24.95
The Duration of a Kiss
Secker & Warburg, $24.95
I wonder what Bill Payne and Peter Wells make of each other. Simultaneous publication by Reed’s new Secker & Warburg imprint forces them into an uneasy alliance and emphasises the similarity of their positions as reporters from hitherto reviled and marginalised zones ‑ the junkie convict and the queer.
They have two major things in common: their distance from mainstream society and the threat of Aids. In his ironically titled story, “Best Intentions”, Payne recalls how in the 1970s hypodermic syringes were blithely passed among junkie confrères with the same blunt needle plunging into arm after scabby arm. “Aids? Needle exchange?” he observes. “They weren’t even invented yet. The only time we got new needles was when we stole them.” Wells has watched gay friends sicken and die. “Manners, over time, dictated that not too much was made of it,” he comments. “With so many people ill, it was grossly self‑indulgent ‑ risking even exhibitionism ‑ to make much of the disease.”
Confronted with their stories as a joint package, a double feature, I find myself imagining the pair fused into a single fictioneer. With Wells’ eloquence and sensuality underpinning Payne’s gusto and street savvy, what a formidable talent this hybrid would be. What a world‑beater!
Not that I wish to imply the two collections are only half-wrought as they stand. On the contrary, both have much to offer. Some of Wells’ stories are superb (particularly “On the Day”, “A Casual Kind of Incest”, “His Eternal Boy” and “Transiberian”). If Payne is generally less adroit, it must be remembered that Poor Behaviour is his first book of fiction, his apprentice work, whereas Wells was already a seasoned and acclaimed screenwriter when he began publishing his short stories at the end of the 1980s. As yet, Payne’s technique lacks subtlety, but he has the basics. He knows how to hook us into his narratives and keep us turning the pages. “Flying Highs”, a droll drug‑smuggling yarn, and “Vine”, a Gothic tale about a silent giant and a child molester, display a flair for Roald Dahl‑like plot twists.
Combined with his insider’s knowledge of crime and punishment, the fearless nothing‑left‑to‑lose quality of Payne’s writing is his biggest strength, but it also accounts for some of his weaknesses. Having journeyed through various levels of hell in the past 25 years, he’s not prepared to censor or prettify his vision to spare the sensibilities of the squeamish.
There’s a difference, though, between a judicious, well-timed punch and a pummelling. Payne has a tendency to lay it on thick. He invariably opts for the worst‑case scenario.
The opening story, “Six O’Clock News”, and its sequel, “Six O’Clock News (Update)”, show 13‑year‑old Cam steadily developing a criminal mentality in the company of thieves, wastrels and sex industry riff‑raff (including his mum). His chief role model and principal source of affection is larcenous, philandering, vodka‑swilling, Elvis‑mad Frank, his so‑called “uncle”. Frank has only one rule, “no narking to the demons” (ie to police), but when it comes to the crunch he fails to abide even by this minimalist ethic.
In “Best Intentions”, a bunch of wild young junkies drive from Wellington to Auckland to attend a Rolling Stones concert. They dream of a chance to shoot up with their idol, the legendary guitarist and walking pharmacy Keith Richard. Before setting out, they break into a high school at night and steal “pills and potions, vials and capsules, bottles and packets and sundry other illegal without‑a‑prescription sledgehammer cures” from a safe in the office. The lads have a grand time knocking themselves comatose with pharmaceutical cocktails ‑ one part morphine, two parts palfium, one part crystal methadone and so forth. Camaraderie and group loyalty seem their saving graces amidst otherwise depraved behaviour but even these prove illusory. When one of them overdoses on a cocktail of morphine, palfium and crystal methadone, the others dump his inert body at the hospital door, go to the concert stoned and then head home without him.
Harry, the hero of “Destiny of Mave”, is even more craven, treacherous and self‑centred. He’s willing to do anything, just anything, for a fix. Having already traded all of his girlfriend Mave’s possessions with any market value, he finally sells Mave herself to a Mongrel Mob‑like gang called The Dogs in exchange for four packets of “arm‑food”.
In “Visiting Rooms”, Tossy Hope travels with her baby son, first by train and then on foot, to visit her young husband, Dion, in prison. She arrives “drenched from rain”, with only 20 minutes of visiting time left. Unfortunately, Budmaster, the guard on duty, is not just a stickler for the rules but a vindictive Nazi nitpicker who enjoys putting obstacles in the young couple’s way until visiting time is over. Next we see Tossy dealing with a similarly pitiless automaton in the Social Welfare office. (“I don’t have to justify my attitude to you,” she’s told. “It’s not in my job description.”) When her benefit is cancelled because of her part‑time job as a receptionist in a massage parlour, her resultant penury forces her to work for Ron Cocker, a smarmy pimp in a safari suit and Chev Impala.
Payne has a fine ear for slang, the dialogues in his stories are almost always foul‑mouthed delights and he’s particularly expert at capturing the banter of male gangs, but he hasn’t developed much skill yet at portraying psychological complexity. Although he exposes the misogyny of gangsters and prisoners with unblinking thoroughness (“Root her four times and punch her in the nose,” one young lady‑killer advises his cohorts in “Fairytale”), women generally bewilder Payne. Like many male authors, he’s at his least convincing when struggling to represent female motives.
Bold cartoon‑like creations, depicted without light or shade, his characters make little claim on our emotions and tend not to engage our sympathy very deeply, in spite of their woeful plights. We don’t take them seriously as moral agents whose decisions are matters of lasting consequence. Determined as he is to explore the processes of brutalisation, Payne is in danger of brutalising his own readers. Those robust enough to survive the onslaught of the first three or four stories are likely to grow inured to the savagery, look into its merciless logic and just want to see the villains (ie the screws and the Social Welfare officers, as well as the drug-addled criminals) commit more sensational atrocities and the victims suffer more gruesome defeats.
In “Creative Writing”, a chain‑smoking “poet, sickness beneficiary and low‑rent philosopher” named Johnathon (an unusual spelling) Dick delivers his views on writing to a class whose members gradually exit in disgust. Although Dick, who swiftly converts his tuition fee to booze, is a satirical invention, a Charles Bukowski‑like revenge on bourgeois poseurs and poetasters, his manifesto, I suspect, is not too dissimilar to Payne’s. “Move among sinners, develop a feel for everyday rhythms,” he says. “Smugness and rigid opinion foreshadow creative death for any true artist. Go for the walking wounded, the ones who bleed and tell too much ‑ the ones who clearly don’t have all the answers.”
It’s good advice. Payne has mastered the street rhythms, but he still settles too often for stereotypes. There’s a kind of smugness and rigidity in his automatic contempt for yuppies, bureaucrats and authority figures. Some of his “answers” are too pat, too predictable, worked out too far in advance.
Payne could learn from Wells’ breadth of compassion. Wells has always been upfront about the partisan nature of his fiction. He writes graphically and unashamedly about the lives of gay men. His primary concern is with delineating the emotional intricacies of homosexual relationships ‑ a taboo subject as recently as 20 years ago. Yet time and again in his latest collection I’m impressed (and humbled) by the way his humanity extends beyond the championing of his kind.
The volume begins tellingly with a story titled “The Law of Relativity”. How does one maintain a civilised sense of proportion and perspective in circumstances akin to the Black Death? Eric Westbrook, a well‑educated, sensual, intelligent, openly gay man of about 40, like most of Wells’ protagonists, temporarily loses himself in a fit of passion and almost penetrates his young lover without a condom. “It was as close as you could get to murdering someone,” he muses. Eric is haunted by the memory of his friend, Perrin, who has died of Aids. His problem is how to remember faithfully without losing all hope for the future.
Eric is visited by an old university friend, Gwen, a would-be rock star, now pregnant. He’s not sure, as he waits for her at the airport, if he can really be bothered with her Janis Joplin‑like affectations, hysteria, self‑absorption and habitual lateness. He doesn’t want to hear the details of her pregnancy. She surprises him by being prompt, serene, mature and interested in his welfare. The old warmth between them soon re‑establishes itself and they chat companionably. Gwen, too, has recently had a close friend die from Aids.
Gwen is not the focal point of this story, but she is treated tenderly, like all of Wells’ characters. Having known at firsthand what it is like to be scorned, marginalised and rendered invisible, Wells is careful in his stories not to dismiss anybody as beneath consideration. There’s a continual sense that if the focus was shifted, characters who currently play small roles would have interesting triumphs and sadnesses to relate.
“His Eternal Boy”, a poignant story about a teenage boy’s love affair with an ageing, sexually adept but emotionally reticent antique dealer, contains a splendid moment when our attention is briefly diverted to Mrs Jolley, the shrewd, unshockable old woman who helps run the antique shop.
“What was her story,” the narrator wonders, “this woman who lived in an apartment on her own in the middle of the city, without any sign of there being a husband: she had a collection of jazz records, art, pottery and often talked gaily of visiting hotels and her consequent hangovers.”
Similarly, in “Transiberian”, there’s a moment when we become curious about the old railway guard who allows a dying Aids victim to stop the Transiberian Express in a vain attempt to retrieve a tea plunger accidentally flung from a carriage window. “The guard looks from Bradley to me, and shrugs. There is weariness in this shrug, an apology, even a hint of tenderness ‑ the tenderness of a man, maybe, who has no power.”
Wells’ ability to imagine a situation from multiple perspectives and sympathise, to some degree, with all of them, reaches its apogee in “On the Day”, an uproarious insider’s account of the frustrations of film‑making. Near his wits’ end as his original lyrical vision (“an eternal vista of a beach, a quintessential blending of air, light, heat, water … a duet of women’s voices, melding into seraphic air”) is increasingly compromised by technical difficulties (“the camera will have to go on the ceiling”), Ephram the director is besieged in every direction by demands and complaints. The producers are frantic, of course, about the timetable and the budget. The pair of actresses who are supposed to irradiate the screen with a rapturous lesbian love scene can’t stand each other. The make‑up artists panic because one of the actresses has a pimple. The screenwriter frets about possible misinterpretations of his script (which has been altered several times unbeknown to him). Frightened into incontinence by the strange surroundings, the horses used in a stagecoach scene empty their bowels, releasing “Niagaras of shit” on to the painstakingly constructed set. In desperation, Ephram yells, “We must retain the ability to be … to be spontaneous.” “Spontaneous continuity!” sneer the crew members whose job it is to ensure costumes and wigs look the same from one day’s filming to the next.
In “Confessions of a Provincial Pouf: An Epilogue”, a sort of guide for the perplexed, which sketches in the broader international context of gay fiction (or queer fiction, as the leading American practitioners now, more aggressively, prefer to term it), Wells pays homage to one of his main influences. “Edmund White,” he says, “was the first contemporary writer I became aware of who was both out as a gay man and who wrote in what might broadly be called a chaste literary manner, that is, he looked at what was central to gay existence ‑ desire, identity, permanence, illusion ‑ and treated it in language which was subtle, allusive, ironic.” A few paragraphs later he praises White for being “infinitely civilised … at home in the fuck club as much as at the dinner table”.
He could be describing his own fiction, for his prose is similarly witty, elastic, precise and attuned to the discrepancies between the ideal and the feasible (sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious). Like White, he retains his poise whether indulging in an outrageously scatalogical fable (“A Prandial Proposition”, subtitled “The Revenge of the Arsehole”), tracing the rapid flowering and decay of an infatuation (“The Duration of a Kiss”), offering worldly advice like a louche Lord Chesterfield (“Letter to a Young Man”), attending a Hollywood party (“Hot Ticket”) or recalling the first outbreak of the Aids epidemic (“The Happy Cadaver”).
Iain Sharp is an Auckland freelance journalist, writer, poet and wit.