Good old Wanganui, John Campbell

Dancing with Beelzebub
Michael Laws
HarperCollins, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86950 324 4

Michael Laws, we are told by the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, wrote Dancing with Beelzebub at the rate of a thousand words a day. “That’s about my limit for the day,” he told the Weekly. In the accompanying photograph he is seated proudly beside his computer, a study of the thriller writer, dressed in black.

None of this is relevant, nor does quantity axiomatically preclude quality, but there is a sense in which Dancing with Beelzebub is a thousand-words-a-day kind of book, a production-line novel in which the language comes so predictably and in such a narrow range that it begins to leave you with an arresting sense of déjà vu. Paragraph after paragraph I felt I’d read this bit before. I hadn’t. And I had. Dancing with Beelzebub is a good yarn, a ripping yarn even, but it is told in language which is so repetitive and so pretentiously purple that it feels exactly as if it were the product of a writing exercise. A WINZ scheme for former MPs, perhaps. A thousand words a day, Michael. Starting from now.

“Ah, Milan.” She strung out his name as if assembling his image before her. “He was killed. A car bomb in Belgrade – killed his driver, his bodyguard and my poor dead man.”
“I’m sorry,” he offered automatically.
“It was inevitable.” Mandy shrugged.

And so it goes. Page after page of people stringing and shrugging and offering automatically. On the same page as the section above, the male character, Regan, “hesitates, basks in the attention elicited by Mandy’s cool style, examines Mandy’s face”, and feels himself to be “a favoured toy, a new pet maybe, but nothing more”.

Mandy retaliates vigorously. In the course of the same page she “states, shrugs”, offers a “derisive verdict, clenches her jaw, stiffens her neck, slaps Regan’s knee” and “stretches her arms above her head”. At times, it feels less like a literary exercise than an aerobics class. At other times, it just feels plain annoying. And as all this is going on, as Regan is offering automatically and Mandy is shrugging, as Regan is hesitating and Mandy is clenching her jaw, we are also being told that “a wall had been erected between them”. Given the physicality of their conversational style, this is possibly no surprise. Unfortunately, the language erects a similar barrier between the story and the reader.

For all that, Dancing with Beelzebub is better than either its title or its thuddingly adjectival, production-line language might suggest. Laws has created characters who are no more or less believable, no more or less real, than the people who inhabit the worlds of Patricia Cornwell or Donna Tart. And in Regan himself, an ambitious National Party candidate in a provincial city electorate, “a mixture of political cunning and personable if disarming honesty”, Laws has somehow transcended the limitations of his own language to deliver a character who is a genuinely memorable addition to New Zealand’s literary landscape.

And there are moments which hint at even greater things, passages which defy the language to ring true, passages with which, it seems, care has been taken. Sometimes Laws is very good. The book’s very first page, for example, vividly evokes the violation that is incest, the vulnerability of the victim, the breach of the sanctity of family and home:

And he would be here soon – smelling of whisky, soil-stained hands sweating Swarfega, fumbling at her white school blouse, whispering at her silence.

And then, mercifully, the gift of understatement. The section above concludes with a paragraph of just ten words: “It’s alright, princess … nothing can hurt you. Daddy’s here.” This is very good writing indeed. The arresting slap of the paradox of such words in such a context.

So, Laws is at his best when at his sparest. The problem is he’s not at his sparest very often. Sometimes it appears as if Michael Laws, author, doesn’t have a clue what spare is:

Regan’s heart was thumping, his breathing audibly shallow. His body was a maze of conflicting signals – the scene had been at once intoxicating and disgusting, provocative and repellent, and for one brief flicker of his groin he considered stripping off his clothes and joining the carnal tableau.

Ah, the carnal tableau. By gum, eh. Good old Wanganui.

Which brings us efficiently, if not prettily, to the book’s locale. Yes, Dancing with Beelzebub, thriller, whodunit, breathless purveyor of “strap-on phalluses” and gleefully lurid fourth-form totty (“he was gushing his life into her mouth”) is set in Wanganui:

A grimy, weather-wasted sign shuffled through his line of vision, offering its insincere “Welcome to Wanganui – the River City”, although a thoughtful vandal had spray-painted an iridescent orange “Shitty” through the last word.

And suddenly there we are, Wanganui, this once thriving and robust community; and Laws has captured its decline nicely: “somehow smaller – as if built at a three-quarters scale replica of his memory”. This is where Laws is at his best; in the known, the experienced, the remembered. Wanganui, its river, its main street, its local newspaper, its police force, its social mores, are caught just right. Here Laws does more than simply fill the page with words. Here he tells a truth.

Much has also been made of the character of Regan, particularly his bid for Parliament; the obvious autobiographical component of this “smart little bastard, too smooth, too swish for this town”, taking on the local Tory establishment and winning. Here too Laws is writing from the known; indeed the snake-oil sales pitch of Regan’s speech at the candidate selection meeting is pure Laws. And again, this is good writing. Again, Laws is more real here, and much more convincing than when he is sounding thriller portents, or duly hauling duly murdered children out of a duly muddy river.

And so Dancing with Beelzebub is a book that both succeeds and fails. At its best, it vividly evokes mood and place, and does so with the eye of someone who knows the lives that are being lived there (or not being lived, as Alan Bennett might have said), the eye of someone who knows the bleakness of Castlecliff, who has experienced the pomposity of politics in the provinces, who has observed the loud, sad affront of empty shops on a once proud main street, and, beyond the soundbite opportunism of politicians, who knows what it really means for a town to lose its largest employer.

That’s the good stuff. At its worst, Dancing with Beelzebub is occasionally so lacking in sophistication and subtlety that parts of it read like an entry in National Radio’s Worst First Sentence of a Novel Competition:

He had liberated old ghosts – blundered into their prison, clumsily undone their chains, unwittingly opened the door. And there would, he knew, be a price for that unthinking negligence.

Thus ends Chapter 10. Clunk.

All the same, I would still rather read Dancing with Beelzebub than any number of stories by Patrica Cornwell or Bryce Courtney or Jeffrey Archer. At least when Laws paints by numbers he does so on a New Zealand palate. The DPB, NZPA, Rimutaka Prison, the Smoke-free Environments Act, they are all in there. Us. But then if it really is us that Laws is interested in, and he has talked of addressing “something dark and menacing” beneath our culture, he should make his allegory less lurid, less the stuff of horror flicks and comic books and adjective-riddled cliché. Dancing with Beelzebub would have been a better book if Michael Laws had written a thousand words a day and then, each evening, taken two or three hundred of them out.

John Campbell is a journalist and News presenter for TV3.

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