Men Behaving Not Too Badly, Jane Westaway

Alpha Male
William Brandt
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 378 X

The young male voice has been absent from the NZ Lit chorus lately, and for that reason alone William Brandt’s first book is worth a close look. The cover features a ringing endorsement from Emily Perkins – her name nearer the title than the author’s own – to reassure those who fear boys can’t do anything. But you soon discover the title is ironic, the contents guaranteed testosterone-reduced.

Brandt’s alpha males are less than successful breadwinners, worried fathers, restless husbands, resentful sons, shamed ex-boyfriends, and flustered astral travellers. Without exception they are all on the back foot, at the top of no pecking order, and at the mercy of events beyond their control.

“Paradise Cove” is the longest story in this collection of five. Dalton Frame is an actor; that is, someone who lives in hope of getting another job. His big moment – a part in a TV soap called Paradise Cove – is well behind him. For Dalton, acting and life are all about appearance management. His latest job, promising much-needed cash, is a Pepsi ad, but he pretends he’s working on a screenplay, and relies on his new cell phone and Vuarnet sunglasses to see him through.

It’s even harder at home – his children are unruly, his wife unhappy, and his father has days to live, his body lying in a hospital bed, while in his mind he is making an ascent of Mt Cook. Nevertheless, Dalton travels to Queenstown to do the ad, and even news of his father’s death the night before the shoot doesn’t deter him from trying to keep ahead of the game. But, ordered to run uphill towards a can of Pepsi, Dalton keeps on running. He’s aiming for the summit, and finds his father alongside.

Dalton’s self-deprecating narration of this midlife coming-of-age story is fluent and amusing, though sometimes a little laboured: “Jamie bit my arm. He sank his teeth in and hung on. I pretended it wasn’t happening. Which, by the way never works. Because if something is happening it’s happening.” Its view of the (non-) working world of actors is likely to make the rest of us very glad to be doing something else.

If “Paradise Cove” is finally less than memorable it may be because its main character is too recognisable. Part of the difficulty is that Dalton is striving to make of himself that cliché, the successful actor. Yet the insecure bloke just beneath the surface is also rather less than fresh.

By contrast, “His Father’s Shoes” is the shortest and most original story in the collection. Here, too, we have another self-deluding narrator, but this disappointed son’s account of his campaign to win from his father a pair of old shoes is beautifully written. Its long run-on sentences – simultaneously pedantic and poignant – perfectly convey his belief in his own calm state of mind, and his pain.

The narrator owns only a pair of cloth shoes; why, isn’t explained, yet we know straightaway that his under-achievement has everything to do with his father. He “politely and reasonably” asks if he can have the gardening shoes that never move from under the sink in the wash-house. No, says his father, they have sentimental value:

what I wanted to suggest to him here was that there might be, perhaps, a greater sentimental value to him in the act of giving his son something he needs … But unfortunately not – father refuses to discuss it. Son throws a glass ornament against the wall and punches the door – “to show him how I felt.”

With the approach of winter, the need for good shoes is more pressing, and son decides to give father another chance. When father says no, son suggests they share the shoes, and offers a pathetically funny strategy by which they might do so. When his father tells him to get out, he decides to cut all ties and go to Germany to be a roof builder.

I won’t spoil the story by revealing the end; enough to say the son gets the last word, in terms of shoes if not life. This story is a little beauty, inspired in the way it focuses so much familial misery and power on a pitiful struggle over banal objects.

With “All Day Sun”, we return to conventional nuclear family life. Its protagonist Greer is Brandt’s most long-suffering character, mainly because he knows he is suffering. He stays home and looks after the three kids while his wife works, a state of affairs his masseur blames for his cripplingly bad back. The pain strikes whenever Greer gets in the wrong position, which he does fairly often.

He is also plagued by lack of money, young male drivers, a local property developer, the city council, real estate agents, the family dog, his wife and exhaustion. Oh, and meaninglessness. As he and his wife lie in bed at the end of another day, he asks: “‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Doing what?’ ‘Whatever we’re doing.’ ‘What choice do we have?’”

Greer is an endearing if forlorn character. The property developer – whose townhouses have stolen his view – is Greer’s scapegoat, yet this unpleasant figure rises to a crisis, and the ending is guardedly optimistic.

Stories about stay-at-home mothers battling on with stoic black humour were common 20 years ago. Now, on the brink of the millennium, we have the father’s story. And that’s how this one feels – as much sociology as literature. Which is not to say it isn’t well-told and entertaining.

“Rat” is the funniest story in the book. When Perry gets a call from ex-girlfriend Jasmine about a mouse in her kitchen, he picks up his grandfather’s WW1 bayonet and rushes over. This has nothing to do with gallantry, everything to with his and James’ competition over the number of mice they can kill. This is Perry’s chance to equalise.

His pursuit around Jasmine’s kitchen of what soon turns out to be a large knowing rat is hilarious and gruesome. Finally the creature is skewered, the grateful Jasmine promising dinner and a whole lot more. All Perry has to do, after he’s thrown up, is clean up the chaos in the kitchen.

But the battle’s not over yet. By the time it is, Perry is on his back on Jasmine’s bed, in a weakened physical and emotional state. And that’s when he remembers how badly he treated Jasmine.

“The Jean Paul Sartre Experience” is a plunge into the surreal. This time the tetchy narrator ends up in Moscow trying to keep an eye on Sharon Stone, who insists on hanging out with the dead philosopher – a little blue around the mouth by now – as well as Chekhov, Tolstoy, Lenin and a helpful lobster.    

It’s certainly imaginative, often witty and was probably fun to write. But it’s too ungrounded and reads too much like an exercise – write a story working in the three elements Sharon Stone, the Kremlin and an eviscerated dog – to be absorbing. It feels out of place in this collection.

Promise is an old-fashioned virtue now that new writers are trumpeted onto the market as fully formed and at the height of their powers, and with creative writing courses assumed to short-circuit the solitary apprenticeship. I’d like to rehabilitate the word – Brandt’s book is competent and entertaining, and it shows promise. That means I expect his second and third books to be even better, and I’ll be looking out for them.    

Alpha Male was awarded Victoria University’s Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing for 1998.

Jane Westaway’s novel, Love and Other Excuses, appeared last month from Longacre Press.

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