Mything the point, Piet de Jong

The Cross-Leased Chardonnay Cellphone Paradise
John Ruck
Collins, $24.95
ISBN 1869502000

Hey, hey, hey — a 90’s sequel to Austin Mitchell’s Half Gallon, Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise. I wave the attractive cover around the office and people laugh at the witty up-dated title. They ask if they can read it after me.

So on the surface Harper Collins is on to a winner here. Some clever person’s hatched a plan to update Austin Mitchell’s iconoclastic tilt at the New Zealand of the 60’s. The new book’s racy title, derivative cover illustration and the promise of a foreword by Mitchell himself (not included with the pre-publication review manuscript) strongly suggest it’s a Half-Gallon update, right?

Wrong. While Mitchell’s original work was funny and sociologically prescient, Cross-Leased consists mainly of the gentle enquiries and reminiscences of 66-year-old John Ruck, a former journalist, during a 12-month odyssey around the country in a Ford Courier campervan with his wife Fay after being away for 30 years.

My anticipation turns to despondency when, after revisiting the real wit of Quarter Acre to prepare for this review, I’m early-on treated to a 60-word exegesis on the contents of John and Fay’s campervan fridge. I think it only fair that I share this with you, just as John shared it with me:

“…in-spite of its diminutive size we managed, by placing things on top of other things, to fit in bread, butter, milk, yoghurt, cheese (two sorts), bacon, eggs, wheat germ, two days’ meat, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, capsicums, bean sprouts, courgettes, a lone can of Coke, the steak sauce bottle that was too tall for a top cupboard, and a bar of chocolate.” (p6)

If John’s got all that say about the contents of his campervan fridge, what’s he got to say about the state of New Zealand in the 90’s — the venison’s off perhaps?

Editorial lapses of the fridge type become fewer, however, once the manuscript gets into its stride and John, Fay and the mobile delicatessen start rattling their way through the bandit-filled provinces “the car thieves who loiter in the scrub hereabouts” — zigzagging through considerable acreages of dope, past stunningly successful niche exporting businesses to the frail sanctuary of the next camping ground (“leather-jacketed yobbos, roaring and revving and rowdying till the wee small hours”).

But John’s an older guy and sometimes his language shows it.

“Good heavens.”
“Oh dear.”
“The doctor comes once a month, should the water give you a tummy bug.”
“We shall need some patience in this confined space”
“The wind is a devil here.”

This doesn’t live up to the raciness promised on the cover. In fairness to Ruck, his journalistic skills and instinct are strong. To his credit, as the All Black captain would say, 66-year-old Ruck included in his research a 44-metre bungie jump above the Kawerau river near Queenstown. And he digs a tonne of interesting statistics and a sackful of anecdotal evidence on industries as diverse as unemployment, television, cannabis, dairying, tourism, wine and manufacturing. He expertly locates a “deep throat” in each field as the vehicle to deliver an amalgam of facts and impressions. But he overlays this with a relentlessly liberal editorial line which predictably requests the need for balance on nearly every issue.

So Ruck is troubled that the sheep has apparently become our de-facto national emblem, he laments the failure of our commodity industries to create marketable brands (his strongest substantive point) and he somewhat lamely criticises several key tourist attractions because the albatrosses are not always there or the whales are absent or the weather is bad at Milford.

What he’s done is upskill himself on the changes in New Zealand while he’s been away in Britain. But the rest of us are already living through these changes and it’s disingenuous of the publishers to foist this on the unsuspecting book-buyer as an entertaining quasi-sociological romp. In places Cross-Leased delivers a touching portrait of decency as John and Fay lament this or that change but this layer of disclosure is often revealed unconsciously through the quaint expressions of the author, rather than by design.

Unless I’ve got it wrong — and Ruck really is a deep operator and the disjuncture between the text and the cover is a slow-dawning but divinely deep metaphor for the meaning of New Zealand in the 1990’s: Amway, Sky TV, Steinlager, Fay Richwhite, the Winebox, MMP and mutton dressed, a million ways, as lamb.

Piet de Jong is a Wellington writer and marketing executive. 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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