Great expectations, John McCrystal

The Dream of Nikau Jam 
Peter Hawes
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 421 7

The Craymore Affair
Kevin Ireland
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 426 8

One of the great fears among actors is being typecast, bound up in the straitjacket of expectations. Ask the cast of Coronation Street or William Shatner. If Temuera Morrison were ever to play Othello, you just know the audience will be leaning forward, holding their breath and waiting for him to demand that Desdemona cook him some eggs.

It’s a particular problem for “funny men” – for example, it’s hard to take Jim Carrey or Robin Williams seriously in serious roles, and seeing them play it straight can often detract from an otherwise competent execution of a worthy part.

It can, of course, happen to writers, too. Expectations can be coloured by previous works – especially first novels – and by previous lives, as with any politician or television personality, or writer of short fiction, plays or poetry, who turns novelist. And once those expectations are set in place, it can be difficult to view a piece of work objectively.

2

So it is with Peter Hawes, who has produced his fourth novel, (leaving aside his first, La Hoguera, as the reviewer – no habla español – must). When he produced his first novel in English, Tasman’s Lay, in 1995, Hawes was (as perhaps he still is) better known as a writer for screen and stage, a newspaper columnist, a children’s author, a dabbler in poetry and short fiction and, of course, a television funny man. This novel was received with bemusement. It was everything everyone expected it to be coming from Hawes – “witty”, “erudite”, “rollicking”, “picaresque” and “a highly inventive comic diversion” – but it was also disconcertingly more. For one thing, Hawes seemed to have put a lot of work into the research, even if it was only to know his futtocks from his strakes; and, for another, it had a bleak ending and spoke just a few too many true words in jest. There was a sense that the author had ambitions of a higher order than his reviewers were giving him credit for. Was this comedy marred by intrusive “issues”, or was this a serious book swamped by compulsive clowning?

Two further novels followed – Leapfrog with Unicorns (1996) and Playing Waterloo (1998); both were very funny, but both were also highly complex and had things to say, about global capitalism (Unicorns) and history (Waterloo). Like Tasman’s Lay, they were executed with the impressive assurance of a billowing imagination ballasted with painstaking research. Each was more exuberant and less satisfying than Tasman, suffering in both cases from excessive complexity and, stylistically, a mixture that was just a little too rich. Neither convinced his readership that Hawes deserved – or even wanted – to be taken seriously.

Sticking with the pattern of producing a book every two years, Hawes has brought out The Dream of Nikau Jam under, it is worth noting, a particularly beautiful cover. Here, his prodigal (and prodigious) imagination has returned from its peregrinations in space (North, South and Central Americas, the Dutch East Indies, New Zealand), time (17th and 18th centuries) and cyberspace, and landed where …? Well, not far from where he has spent much of his life, as it happens, on the West Coast of the South Island, and in the here and now, give or take five years.

The Dream of Nikau Jam is about Simon Fyfe, also known as Feefi (as in Fee Fi Fo Fum, for Simon has a pituitary disorder which has produced gigantism and mild intellectual impairment and has made him “Special”). Despite his imposing appearance and mental disability, he is accepted, regarded proprietorially and protectively and even admiringly in his community. He’s a Buller man, a Coaster; he works for Railways, drinks beer at “the Gren” with the boys, sings like an angel and has the special knack of making a delicious jam from the fruit of protected nikau palms.

The story has low-key drama – Feefi’s condiment sets him on a collision course with a group of environmental activists from “Over the Hill” (the Coaster’s term for anywhere not on the Coast, particularly Christchurch, a world away just over Arthur’s Pass) and this leads to a District Court action. It has pathos aplenty, a clever twist (albeit of a lower order than the feat of gender reassignment in Tasman’s Lay) and, of course, a considerable degree of that most common of pituitary disorders, love. Needless to say, it is very funny indeed.

The same true ear that makes Hawes a successful playwright and writer of dialogue also gives him an aptitude for acutely vivid description:

Feefi had cleaned his Agee jars. It was a job he liked, cleaning jars, although he’d never tell that to the other jokers … The jars would float at first, mouths open like big yawns, then fill and wobble to the bottom of the boiling drum, turning into the colour of water, like whitebait do. When he stirred the jars with the worn old lancewood pole they made a warm “scrump” noise that you could feel inside your hands.

 

Yet although the text sparkles with characteristic virtuosity, there are fewer exclamation marks and, on the whole, Hawes resists the temptation, all too often yielded to in his earlier works, to go one simile too far. Structurally, too, the novel is simpler, and while it is characteristically divided into many sub-chapters, these do not have individual titles. True, there are still features which Nikau Jam might have done better without – the unnecessary, even puzzling, use of a blowfly (“on the wall”, naturally enough) to introduce changes of scene and timeframe; changes of tense and point of view which, while not unduly obstructive, don’t help to create a sense of discipline. There is a message but it is on a sufficiently small scale not to overpower the story – the dogmatic (and paradoxically destructive) environmentalism of outsiders contrasting with the harmonious “feel” of Coasters for their environment has obvious allegorical significance for the West Coast in the age of conservationism and Timberlands. The characters are surely and sympathetically drawn, betraying a deep affection for the Coast and Coasters.

All in all, there is a sense that Hawes has got his considerable talent under control, and it might be just about time to start taking him seriously.

3

Like Peter Hawes, Kevin Ireland languishes somewhat under the weight of expectation. The Craymore Affair is his third novel, following Blowing my Top (1996) and The Man Who Never Lived (1997). He has also published a volume of short stories Sleeping with the Angels (1995), the award-winning memoir Under the Bridge and Over the Moon and, of course, many volumes of fine poetry.

In Ireland’s case, the expectation – raised by his pedigree as a poet and heightened by the beautiful, lyrical and insightful prose of the memoir – is that his novels will contain insight, profundity, wit and wisdom. It is an expectation, however, which his novels have so far fallen short of.

Blowing My Top was historical, concerned with the events of the 1951 waterfront strike and, obliquely, with the 1987 stockmarket crash. It was clever, particularly in the subtle development of its main character, Darby Fulljames, but it set out to do little more than entertain. Similarly, The Man Who Never Lived developed its main character, Arthur Gransey, skilfully, and in the guise of a whodunnit murder mystery it told the story of an obstinate old man’s reconciliation with his deadbeat son. Still, there was a conspicuous lack of anything other than entertainment value.

It must be said that The Craymore Affair does not realise its potential either.

Boris T Craymore, “minimalist poet, enthusiastic drinker and reluctant academic”, finds himself in London nursing a head injury and suffering from a complete loss of memory. Recollection comes back to him slowly, but the reader is kept rather better informed through switches of point of view to Auckland, where a rather hysterical admirer and colleague of Craymore’s, Danielle Thornsides, is trying to convince the police to investigate his disappearance and the equally mysterious presence of his nephew, Jacques, and his girlfriend, Romana Jones, in his house. The plot thickens with a Sydney thug arriving in Auckland to blackmail Jacques and Romana; meanwhile, in London, Craymore is getting reacquainted with Neeta, his wife whom he had deserted many years before his sudden, recent, dishevelled return.

The reader might perhaps have expected the author to use this situation to explore questions of memory and identity; but save for the fact that the blow to his head brings Craymore to his senses vis-à-vis Neeta, it is an opportunity Ireland steadfastly ignores. It is the device rather than the concept of memory loss that inspired him to write The Craymore Affair. As he has said in an interview, it occurred to him while struggling with the need to recover and confront memory in writing the memoir.

In other ways, too, The Craymore Affair seems an elastic reaction to the pains taken over Under the Bridge. It has been written solely and unashamedly to entertain, as though the effort of being solemn has become just too much. Even satire seems too much trouble to sustain, although there’s plenty of scope in the shape of Craymore’s apparently bogus acclaim and Danielle Thornsides’ fawning, academic adoration. Vegetarianism cops a serve through Romana Jones, whose diet is mercifully inadequate to translate her psychopathic rage into action. The police, in the shape of the ambitious and capable Dyon Daykes, thwarted by his sluggish, quixotic superior, Bryan Bynkall, receive a poke. The criminal underclass is gently disparaged; but somehow none of it seems pointed.

Far from being poetic, the language ranges from decidedly pedestrian to just too clever. Craymore, it seems, cannot speak without resorting to wordplay: “Where I work,” he says in a typical passage, “poetry has to have more moaning than meaning, which translates roughly as equal parts of mystery and misery. It helps to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in good jobs. It’s the unamusing side of the muse.”

Occasionally, of course, Ireland gets it just right, as where Craymore is casting about for a pseudonym and chooses Maurice, on the grounds that the overwhelming majority of New Zealand writers are called Maurice.

Finally, just as his previous two novels have lacked emotional depth, he makes no attempt to explore the complexities of the human soul. The characters are, after all, caricatures: Romana delights with her vapid fury; Craymore amuses with his riddling muse; but they both lack a third dimension. Even the burgeoning romance between Boris and Neeta fails to quicken the pulse.

All of which would be fine were it not for expectations.

 

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

 

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