What might he have become? Iain Sharp

The Man Who Never Lived
Kevin Ireland
Vintage, $24.95
ISBN 1 86941 325 3

Kevin Ireland begins his second novel in classic thriller mode. While taking his daily constitutional walk along the waterfront of Mt Matheson (an affluent seaside community across the harbour from the thriving port of Rownley), the narrator, 75-year-old Arthur Gransey,

discovers a dead body on the beach. With a ruthless thoroughness reminiscent of the Mr Asia killings of the late 1970s, the corpse has been mutilated to avoid identification – face bashed in, fingers chopped off.

Gradually we learn that Gransey’s daughter Geraldine (Deenie for short) is mixed up with a drug gang. Her boyfriend, Tuggy Sullivan, is their crooked banker. The body on the beach could be Tuggy. It’s not until late in the book that we know for sure.

The complicated plot includes some Chandleresque double-crosses, constantly shifting alliances and abrupt revelations that apparently decent characters are in fact villains and apparent villains are in fact halfway decent. There’s even a car chase, although Ireland, who’s a movie buff, can’t resist taking the Mickey out of this Hollywood convention by making doddery old Arthur one of the drivers and by choosing low-budget vehicles: a clapped-out Falcon and a yellow Skoda. Like Howard Hawk’s celebrated screen adaptation of The Big Sleep, the ending of The Man Who Never Lived left me more than a little confused about who did what to whom, why and when.

Not that I’ll be losing much sleep trying to figure out the answers. The Man Who Never Lived might have many of the trappings of a detective novel but its real interests lie elsewhere. As the book proceeds, the mystery element becomes less and less relevant. Some gangsters are already dead when they’re first introduced to us. Others remain just shadowy names whose exploits are related to us third-hand. It’s hard to care much about hit-men who have never lived in our imagination.

The sleuths in most detective novels move around continually, following clues from one location to the next in their restless quest for the truth. Old Arthur, on the other hand, seldom budges from his house. For information he relies partly on his memories and partly on news provided by callers. “Visitors, visitors, visitors,” he grumbles at one point in the narrative, “the place had never seen such an interminable tumble of unexpected faces.” And the detectives tell him: “We’ve noticed that all roads lead through your property, Mister Gransey.”

Borrowing from Henry James, Ireland might have subtitled the novel What Arthur Knew. Of paramount concern are the fluctuations in the old man’s self-image and what he believes about his kith and kin; the unmasking of the murderer (or murderers) is a comparatively minor issue. The detection of his own past follies consumes more of Arthur’s mental energy than the investigation of other people’s crimes.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel a literary parallel is suggested that is more directly pertinent to the plot than my Jamesian analogy. “For the first time”, muses Arthur, “it struck me that, without knowing when or how it had happened, I was becoming like that old mad King Lear in the play Grace had taken me to when we had gone to London so many years ago.”

The points of similarity are obvious. Like Lear, Arthur is “a foolish fond old man” who “hath ever but slenderly known himself”. He too has made the wrong choices among his offspring. It’s only in his own mind, however, that Arthur has ever shared Lear’s grandeur. While there’s no reason to discount his summary of past achievements (“head of Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, local National Party chairman, board of this, committee for that”), we sense from the start that his claims to have been “what you might call boss dog in Rownley” and “King Arthur of the Rownley table” are hyperboles.

Nobody else recalls him in this light. Indeed, most of Rownley’s citizens now fail to recognise Arthur at all. There’s pathos not only in his demise but in his growing recognition that he never really cut much of a dash. He worries about turning into “a fulltime dithering, if pretty well-heeled, nobody”. He voices a universal fear when he concludes: “It was as if my life counted for nothing.” And we feel for him, I think, when he speaks of “spiritual vertigo”, which he describes as “a feeling of total disintegration, as though all of your life certainties have suddenly collapsed inside you – a disastrous, desolate, falling-apart sensation, which comes from God knows where or why”.

Yet in most ways Arthur is not a sympathetic character. Narrow-minded, stingy and sanctimonious, forever moaning about declining standards, he’s a wowser, a prig and a bore.

The wonder, really, is why Ireland should be so keen to impersonate him. I suspect it’s an attraction of opposites. Those who have taken the bohemian path can’t help but wonder occasionally what life is like on the main bourgeois thoroughfare. Had Ireland not opted for a literary career, had he chosen a more orthodox course instead and gone into business, had he let Mammon rule him, what manner of a man might he have become?

It does not take much detective work to see that Mt Matheson is based on Mt Maunganui and Rownley is based on Tauranga. The selection of such English-sounding substitutes for the Maori place-names is interesting, however. Perhaps Ireland’s choice of Anglophile appellations was influenced by his own physical location – in Devonport, a seaside settlement named after a town in south-west England, across the harbour from Auckland, a city named after an English peer. No doubt he wanted to emphasise what a homogenous, white, middle-class enclave Arthur inhabits.

New Zealand’s ethnic minorities make no appearance in the book. In the final pages Arthur expresses a preference for one of Rownley’s Chinese restaurants, the Bamboo Sunrise, but this is based entirely on thrift, not on any fondness for the Chinese. We never learn what Arthur’s views are on race relations; it’s not a subject he bothers to consider, since he doesn’t know any non-Pakeha. But, given his other social attitudes, his racial views are unlikely to be liberal.

Here is Arthur on the subject of his second wife, Grace, whom he considers the epitome of female virtue: “She was a real friend, an ideal old fashioned stay-at-home New Zealand housewife – modest, agreeable, supportive of her husband and a wonderful mother”. In other words, a doormat and domestic flunkey.

And here is Arthur describing his response to the discovery that his youngest son is gay: “There were terrible weeping weals across his arms and legs where I had thrashed him with the buckle-end of my belt.”

Do we really want to keep company with such a vicious, convention-bound, bigoted old curmudgeon? In real life, probably not. But Ireland employs various skilful ruses that enable Arthur’s monologue to hold our attention. Initially, of course, were lured in by the murder mystery. Then, after the first few chapters, we become aware of the ironies at play. We realise most of Arthur’s opinions are deluded and wait to see them overturned. When he denounces his son Ralph as “a no-hoper, a wastrel, a drunkard and a yobbo”, we realise that sooner or later Ralph will redeem himself. When he declares that Nathan is his “oldest and wisest friend”, we expect Nathan to betray him. When he announces that his daughter Deenie “may be a bloody fool with men, but you know perfectly well she’s not a liar”\, what we really know is that Deenie’s not to be trusted. And so forth. In fact, the reversals become a bit too pat and predictable. By the end of the book I found myself wishing Arthur’s judgment about somebody – anybody – would turn out to be correct.

If Arthur’s obsessions were presented to us in a single, unbroken soliloquy, he would become intolerable. Realising this, Ireland frequently disrupts Arthur’s narrative with other voices, offering widely divergent points of view. The most entertaining of these interlocutors is Ralph, whose breezy, expletive-driven lingo sometimes has an inventiveness worthy of Barry Humphries’ creation, Sir Les Paterson. “If all the grey matter you’ve got inside your skull was Brilliantine”, Ralph tells his father at one juncture, “you wouldn’t have enough to comb through the hairs in your ears.”

But what keeps us reading on a page-by-page, paragraph-by-paragraph level is that Ireland cheats a little by endowing his bourgeois, supposedly unimaginative narrator with some of his own poetic sensibility. Although Arthur is often long-winded, relying on the pompous, vapid clichés associated with Rotarian speech-making, there are many moments when his phrasing is unexpectedly – indeed, improbably eloquent.

At one point Arthur discusses his taste in music. It’s as comfortably middle-of-the-road as one might expect: Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Mantovani. Yet he goes on to say: “There’s a superb phantom grace about all those Mantovani violins and there’s something menacing, something lethal about them too.” Surely that is the poet Kevin Ireland’s artful justification for paying attention to Mantovani, not dull old Arthur Gransey’s.

Arthur frequently thinks in terms of similes and symbols, just like his creator. “The Mount glowed in the afternoon sun at the end of the peninsula”, he tells us, “like a giant golden syrup pudding.” Discovering Ralph asleep on his couch, he observes, with fine alliteration: “There he was, as bold as a young buck on the bash.” A little later, reflecting on Ralph’s dismissal to Queensland after a youthful misdemeanour, our often circumspect narrator suddenly abandons his elevated tone in favour of a lively vernacular trope: “So off he went like shit from a goose.”

There are even times when, Donne-like, Arthur launches into extended metaphysical conceits. Contemplating his ageing penis, he says: “My cock hung down like an old bat tucked up comfortably in the wrinkled folds of the little wings that bunched behind it – sleeping off its past follies, no doubt.”

Late in the novel, Arthur thinks:

But events were now going to prove that no matter how you rub away at the language of truth or how hard you chip at the facts you can’t ever quite remove all trace of them. I have been forced to learn that there is always the ghost of a lost word waiting in the shadows to leap out and startle you or some small malignant particle of the past that works its way through the layers of suppressed memory to swell and burst and suppurate in the mind.

The disease metaphor triggered by the word malignant is beautifully sustained. And notice how the concern is not simply with truth but the language of truth. Surely this is a poet addressing us. Who else would be so haunted by “the ghost of a lost word”?

Withered old capitalist though he may be, Arthur is at heart a romantic, just like Ireland. Landscape is capable of stirring his aesthetic sense. Describing the joys of his garden, he praises “my two specimens of old man saltbush, Artiplex nummularia, which stand out in lovely scaly grey in early summer against the lime and pale golden glow of my Callistemon shiressii bottlebrush”. But what really induces in him a rhapsodic mood is the contemplation of women’s beauty, particularly the charms of his glamorous daughter. Deenie, he assures us, “could have been a goddess”. He confides that she has been “the one and only ideal secret love of my whole existence”. Drooling on, he adds, “She was small and delicate-looking and pretty – and she had this glowing presence that used to mystify me and send me into … Well, raptures is a corny word when you write it down, but it conveys the general idea.”

It’s one of the oddities of the book that Deenie never appears; she just makes a couple of short phonecalls. In fact, apart from a brief walk-on by a gum-chewing, waif-like young policewoman in “a pathetically short skirt”, women have no presence in the novel except as disembodied voices. Yet women are never far from Arthur’s mind, either as sources of complaint (in the case of Belle) or as goddesses to be adored. So much is this the case that, focusing on the exposed buttocks, slender waist and sea-smoothed legs, he mistakenly thinks at first the body on the beach is female.

Ireland is having some fun, of course, at the expense of Arthur’s suppressed, yet still smouldering, sexuality. Still, I can’t resist extrapolating from the womanless situation of The Man Who Never Lived to make a general point about Ireland’s writing. Although he has often taken love’s vicissitudes as his theme, with a few honourable exceptions (such as the lovely sequence of poems addressed directly to his wife Caroline in A Grammar of Dreams), his intended audience seems, more often than not, to be his circle of male friends.

And there’s another general observation I’d like to make about Ireland’s oeuvre. It’s well-known that although he lived overseas from 1959 to 1986, his poems during that 27-year period were published only in New Zealand. I think one of the effects of this unusual literary arrangement was that Ireland’s writing gradually took on some of the attributes of letters home. Terse, cryptic, intense, frightening notes are not the kind of mail one’s distant friends and relatives wish to receive. Being a sociable man, Ireland sought to reassure his readers that all was well, he was surviving and his sense of humour was intact. Sure, there were still problems aplenty but he learned to give his grizzles a mirthful air. He became a master (one of the best New Zealand has produced) of adroit, civilised comedy. Yet in the process something was lost. It’s apparent from the brooding, often melancholy romanticism of his first book, Face to Face, that his poetic career might have followed a different route. He could have cut deeper.

Instead it has become his habit to turn away from material that might be considered too dark, too difficult, too troubling. The title of the new novel promises an exploration of the varying ways that lives pass unfulfilled. And, yes, there are some shrewd glances in that direction. But no more than glances. Arthur is haunted by his memory of the huge white-pointer shark he saw when he was about 14 or l5: “It’s the silent, menacing all-devouring shadow that you never know about till you’re standing out on the reef, looking back with the benefit of hindsight to the shore.” That’s a great image, but Ireland is unwilling to turn The Man Who Never Lived into a shark hunt in the shadowy depths. He’s content to settle instead for a deft comic thriller with some deeper resonances.

Not that I want to greet the fine entertainment he has given us with Arthur-like curmudgeonliness. The Man Who Never Lived is a good book. But, had Ireland been prepared to probe further, it might have been a great one.

Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer and critic.

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