America on Five Bullets a Day
Hodder Moa Beckett, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86958 656 5
Just Walking the Dogs
Hazard Press, $16.95,
ISBN 1 877161 49 7
Yin and Tonic
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 358 X
Winston Churchill once famously said, apropos the dessert he was eating: “This pudding has no theme.” About halfway through Raybon Kan’s America on Five Bullets a Day, you may find yourself expressing a similar sentiment, only you’ll be more likely to put it like this: “If this is America on five bullets a day, why are we spending 14 pages at a religious rally in Ericsson Stadium, Auckland?”
The answer, it seems, is that Hodder Moa Beckett thought that a Raybon Kan book would be a good idea – and they were probably right, because Kan is a genuinely funny writer whose first book presumably did well enough to warrant publishing another. But then came the tricky bit: what was the book to be about ?
Whatever Kan intended, and whatever Hodder Moa Beckett hoped, it’s clear that they didn’t have quite enough material to make a coherent book. As a result, America on… (you know the rest by now) starts out being about tennis and keeps it up, with the occasional diversion, for 60 pages. Then we go off and spend a long time in Disneyworld, Florida. Suddenly, after that, we’re in Ericsson Stadium (see above). Then we dart back – with more bizarre side-trips, such as the one to a Civil War reenactment – to Montgomery, Alabama in search of Martin Luther King’s roots. Finally we wind up standing more or less on the balcony where King was killed, wondering why we still have a tennis racquet in our hands and a used ticket to Disneyworld in our pocket.
In short, this is a book in search of a theme. It tries to be a travel book but loses the plot. It might have worked as a humorous odyssey but there are just too many tedious detours. It’s as if Bill Bryson started out walking the Appalachian Trail and wound up on the main street of Invercargill. There were times when I felt that the book had a bit of a nerve even to call itself a book, rather than a 200-page ramble with covers at each end. Winston Churchill, one feels, would not have given it the time of day.
It has to be said that both publisher and author are fearlessly frank about the problem. This book, boasts the flap, “is an unrelenting nightmare for the Dewey Decimal System.” And Kan prefaces the work by saying that its two main topics, tennis and Martin Luther King, have nothing to do with each other.
There may be Kan fans untroubled by this. People who got to like his humour through the television reviews he used to write for the Dominion, or those who have caught his stand-up comedy routine, may feel that as long as he’s funny it’s okay. Just keep us laughing, Raybon, and never mind the big picture.
Well, all right. How do the jokes, as it were, stand up? First the bad news. The very first joke in the book isn’t funny. Here it is in its entirety:
As far as I know, Martin Luther King never played tennis. (That was Billie Jean King.)
Moving right along, there’s a joke on page 16 that is not original. I heard Ian Harcourt tell it, and tell it much better, at least three years ago, and I’m sure he didn’t get it from Kan. And further on a very tired joke of the all-Germans-are-really-Nazis variety makes the spirits sag. For some reason a failed joke seems so much worse in print: it sits there sadly, its syllables drooping for all to see.
Now the good news. Much earlier than that, there’s a very funny joke of the all-Germans-are-really-Nazis variety, and only the fact that it requires half a page of build-up prevents me from repeating it here. I still chuckle every time I look at it. So, ein out of zwei ain’t bad; and there are lots more laughs at regular intervals throughout the book, plus one or two passages of sustained comic brilliance. As I said, Kan has a genuine comic gift, but he badly needs a tight focus for his humour, otherwise he’s all over the shop.
Now the best news of all. Kan is a great sportswriter! The chapter called “The Wicked Forehand of Dominique van Roost” is an absolute zinger. I just wanted him to go on and on. Some enterprising sports editor should grab this guy and send him off to cover Wimbledon, the Davis Cup, whatever. He’d probably cover the Rugby World Cup wonderfully, for that matter, especially if he gambles on it too. There can be no doubt that the fact that he has placed a large bet on van Roost to win a particular tournament lends a compelling edge to his coverage of that tournament.
The sportswriting notwithstanding, Kan’s book left me disappointed. By the time, however, that I’d finished the other two books under review, America on Five Bullets a Day seemed like Anna Karenina. Grappling with Joe Bennett and Renée, I began to long for Kan’s towering Tolstoyan intellect again.
It’s not that Bennett can’t write. He can. He has a gift for the telling phrase, and can lift potentially tired material with a few unobtrusive literary hydraulics. And his book has a theme all right. The theme is Joe Bennett and how he feels about life – about, not to put too fine a point on it, everything from sex education to Saddam Hussein. You want an opinion, Joe’s your man: there are at least 41 opinions in here, and every one of them has an anecdote or two hovering in attendance.
But this is not a real book either. It is a collection of newspaper columns slung together by Hazard Press, it seems, in order to capitalise on Bennett’s being named Columnist of the Year at the last Qantas Media Awards. Well, good on him, and you can’t blame Hazard Press for trying, but think carefully before parting with your $16.95. These pieces were all written to be read in a daily paper – glanced over, perhaps, in five minutes or so (they average 750 words) before the eye falls on the crossword, the sports results or whatever. Their purpose in the paper is to detain you briefly, not grip your attention for a number of hours. No one ever curled up in an armchair with a daily newspaper column, no matter how good.
In short, these columns – many of which are good – were meant to be taken once a day, like a pill. Putting them together in book form is like asking us to swallow the whole jar at once. You could easily OD on anecdotes.
It’s worth noting that each of these three books features the author prominently on the cover. Renée and her publisher, Random House, have gone a step further, however, and added the subtitle “Comic Writing” to Yin and Tonic. This was unwise; I may be wrong but I’m not sure that even a P G Wodehouse book ever had “Comic Writing” on the cover. It’s the kind of claim that raises expectations that may not necessarily be fulfilled – and in this case they haven’t been.
Whatever kind of writer she may be, Renée is not – on the evidence here – a naturally comic one. Here is an example of one of her jokes:
It was in Auckland I first heard talk about postmodernism. I didn’t take too much notice. Besides I was pretty sure there’s a law against posting modernism through the mail. I think it’s just supposed to be letters.
Like Joe Bennett’s book, this one is a collection of generally disconnected pieces, written in a busy, gossipy, conversational style that might work in small bites but wearies the appetite when all put on the table at once. Even to dip into it is difficult: potentially interesting tales are too often spoilt by a straining for humour. There are also some unhappy attempts at satire and parody.
The best piece, “Pigeon or Pear?”, is both a rollicking read and a fascinating insight (for a male anyway) into the savage and unforgiving world of womenswear shops. But even if there had been more like that, I was again left with the feeling that there simply wasn’t enough substance here for a whole book. It’s a worry.
Denis Welch is a Wellington journalist.