Site-specific ghetto-centricities, David Eggleton

What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?
Alan Duff
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 310 5

Alan Duff makes good copy: he’s a phenomenon. If he didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. Duff, the Hemingwayesque bare-knuckle bruiser from the school of hard knocks who has worked his way into literary prominence like a latter-day John A Lee, gives every appearance of being the master of his linguistic destiny. His reportage from the trembling faultline between two cultures has a harrowing authenticity. Duff, skidding off the lip of hubris like some swearword virtuoso, has an awesome ability to recreate the Kiwi concrete vernacular, especially that  part of it associated with the underclass — the disenfranchised, alienated, urban Maori in the packed suburbs on the fringes of the main towns.

Apirana Taylor, Bruce Stewart and Witi Ihimaera have touched on it but only Alan Duff so far has gone and seized that ghettocentric subculture by the scruff of the neck and dragged it out into the open. Witi Ihimaera’s essentially sunny, bucolic fiction meets its dark side in Duff’s work. Duff’s dark sarcasm takes up where Ihimaera’s optimism leaves off. For the first time we go behind the tattooed faces of the mobsters.

In a way identity is linguistically constructed: you are what you speak. When Duff’s characters speak, we hear voices we haven’t much heard in New Zealand literature before but which are all around us — often in institutions (jails, mental hospitals) or in pubs and on state housing subdivisions. Duff’s exiles on Main Street are in literary terms Dickensian. He’s created an electrifying gallery of grotesques caught on the cusp of what they were — an indigenous people — and what they have become: a powerless demographic at the mercy of market forces to which they react by forming their own structures, scavenged from the junked obsolescent -commodities of the dominant culture.

Duff arrived late but fully formed on the scene in 1990 (“a 40-year old enfant terrible”, as Murray Waldren described him recently in The Australian ) with Once Were Warriors , a novel which on the back of the Lee Tamahori film has gone global. Two more novels — One Night Out Stealing and State Ward  — and a polemical work — Maori: the Crisis and the Challenge — later, here’s the followup in what could well extend into a trilogy or even a roman fleuve. Duff also has a formidable reputation as a bicultural debater, using his syndicated newspaper column as a kind of bully pulpit to harangue the nation. Working with the last of the big ideas — biculturalism  — Duff promotes self-help, social entrepreneurs, neighbourhood associations, sports clubs and voluntary organisations as answers to Maori disempowerment (his attacks on “dependency” are legendary). This can be seen as the tail end of 1960s idealism, 1970s liberalism and 1980s libertarianism. Call it 1990s communitarianism.

In What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?,  though, there are no easy solutions. Fiction is more ambivalent than a newspaper column. Writing about his lost tribe of gang members and pub-goers, Duff suggests only some will be survivors: not those who resort to warrior savagery and the false camaraderie of criminal collusion but those who practise self-improvement against the odds and those who are fortunate enough to escape the poverty trap by getting a decent job, sometimes as welfare officers. This is a mixed-message, even a confused-message, novel. Though partly a parable about movement from the lower circles of hell towards the light, the anxious middle classes will find only limited comfort in this work as a moral tract. (As with all good melodrama the chief villain — the gang prez — gets it in the neck. Gluing together gang exploits at length allows Duff to point up his moral: bad guys don’t prosper.)

Murder, suicide, crime, abuse. As a storyteller Duff is a spellbinder (even if reading his prose is sometimes akin to slowly chewing cardboard.) This chronicle of the Heke family picks up six years on from Once Were Warriors and Jake Heke, that icon of misplaced male machismo, has stopped settling every argument with his fists. Formerly brutalised and brutalising, exorcising inner demons as Jake the Muss, he now has a job on a road gang, is houseproud and is becoming altogether kinder, gentler and healthier. Beth Heke, luckier than some of her friends, has moved away from her breadline existence, carefully counting out every Weetbix biscuit, and formed a new relationship with Charlie Bennett (“Mr Welfare Officer middleclass Maori”). But all is not sweetness and light: two of her sons are involved with gangs and one gets killed in a fight. Meanwhile Polly is haunted by the suicide of her sister, Grace.

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? — a song title — is a title dripping with irony. A potboiler set in Rotorua thinly disguised as the fictional Two Lakes, the book is saturated in Saturday night party-song music — those singalongs accompanied by an acoustic guitar which often feature morbid murder ballads done up as sugary confections: Englebert Humperdink’s “Please Release Me”; Tom Jones’s “The Green, Green Grass of Home”. The point is that these get-togethers in Pine Block (the Two Lakes state housing district, home to the damned) were and are a way of expressing both a yearning and a conviviality. And while Maori have the pop songs, the wealthy pakeha family in the mansion up on the hill have Slavonic chants to soothe their quotidian cares.

Duff is nothing if not a writer who speaks for his people. There are elements of oratory, of hellfire and brimstone preaching in his writing which links it with African-American writers such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. At the same time, his voices can sound like those on some nightmarish talkback radio station: “Five years they’d been living together now — well, not living together like homos but as buddies, mates.”

His pugilistic prose, with its punchy two-step dance, its raw lung power, also evokes proletarian writers such as Jack London and the Beats — Jack Kerouac. Getting inside the Brown Fists gang headquarters or the Hawks’ fortified house, with their pungent stenches and absurd semantic rituals, Duff begins to write at white heat. He takes the mangled, fractured English of gang-speak and turns it into a generic stream-of-consciousness — all twisted sinews and meaty mass, a language abattoir — which reflects the gangs’ ferocious self-hatred and their scorn for outsiders. Here, where bloody didacticism meets simplistic dialectic, Duff paints — perhaps overpaints — these woman-beating gangbangers as unredeemably evil and heading in the opposite direction to Jake the Muss. Jake is seen as a strong man bedevilled by socioeconomic circumstances. Contrite, he senses that the work ethic and rugby will make him free. He hooks up with a surrogate whanau — the Douglas brothers — who take him hunting. Here we see an old colonial myth made over. Prowess in a frontier town, associated with taming and untamed wilderness, gets sublimated on the sports field and in bush activities: pig-hunting, goat-shooting, possum-trapping.

Deep down, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? is hard, terse and macho, testosterone-heavy. In its hard-to-follow jargon, with its air of conspiratorial mystique, you hear echoes of the jailbird lyricism of a Genet, the savage, syncopated phrase-making of a Celine. These seem like exotic elements in New Zealand literature but in fact they’ve been here all the time — it’s taken Duff’s high-impact angst to reveal them.

The cover of the novel shows a man with a tattooed-on black armband crouched in a foetal position, broken spirits bottle alongside. But that dramatic temperance pamphlet illustration is the bogus wish-fufilment of a leftover Victorian repression. Its cheap fake rhetoric contrasts with the raw, exaggerated but thereby more truthful prose within. This is visceral stuff you can almost taste and smell (the bile, the stale beer) — so genuine that at times you feel compelled to hold the book at arm’s length. The pain which comes off the pages burns like rotgut juice. Here’s low-life in all its godlessness and frustration. This is prose to kickstart a whole convoy of Maori battalion descendants into action.

But while Jake is the kinetic character, all self-motivation, a newly ennobled savage, and while Tania from Mangakino, Mulla Rota and Jimmy Shirkey are the heretofore invisible, speechless, nameless, court fodder whose opaque language now turns incandescent and positively blazes, the token pakeha Gordon Trambert and his family are turgid clumsy constructions whose high Anglican English has been corrupted. The Trambert family (“upper middle class dysfunctional”) describe themselves in their interior monologues in terms which become a little over-ripe, if not distinctly gamey: “Why, one had actually found himself weeping,” says somebody, sounding as grating as fingernails being scraped down a blackboard. So Duff’s not a sweeping panoramic novelist after all: he’s site-specific.

But within his class-conscious limitations Duff’s pitbull energy enables him to meet his vaulting ambition to tell it as it is. Behind this book there’s a whole trove of influences, from American Marvel comics of the 1950s to pulp novels about slave plantations in the ante-bellum deep south to moral fictions like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin  and to amoral fictions like Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. With his multiple narrations, overlapping character perspectives and effective mimicry (“talking the talk”) Duff proves himself a master craftsman, adept enough to make expressing faith in performance as a way out of a dead-end lifestyle not seem like a tape-looped sermon. This is not a patronising voyeuristic freakshow, either. Duff’s not just slumming: he’s lived there.

 

David Eggleton is a Dunedin writer and critic

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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