A better class of hoon, Mark Broatch

Stonedogs
Craig Marriner
Random House, $26.95,
ISBN 1869414764

I donned my beanie before writing this review. It seemed only fitting. Part of the challenge of this book is its subject matter: drunken, stoned hoons, racing around the country in an old Holden, cursing effortlessly, living lives, shall we say, less than salubrious or blameless. This is a sometimes violent world of gang prospects, “ballheads”, skinheads, chicks and homies. And there’s its author: goateed, heavy-lidded, peering out from just behind the expressionistic cover, long straggly locks hidden mostly by a dark yin-and-yang beanie, looking for the life of him like one of his protagonists. As an example of marketing, it’s not slick but it works in a subversive way; it appears to be truthful.

The identification with his characters, real or not, is key. For part of Marriner’s mission here is to challenge the image of the under-educated, underachieving stoner as some kind of unredeemable weight on society. Gator, his hyper-articulate lead player and sometime narrator, clearly votes for the school of life over the school of homework. He regards the latter as some kind of “processing plant”. Gator is the thinker and organiser of a “Brotherhood” of four, also comprising hard man Barry, Mick, the “editor” of the group, and ladies’ man Lefty. They tour Rotorua (“Roto-Vegas” to one and all) looking for good times, which equates to booze, dope and women, usually in that order. Light entertainment consists of watching a bunch of bouncers take to a semi-inebriated troublemaker. But soon the plot thickens. When an encounter at a gang house goes terribly wrong, retribution of a cunning, rather than vicious, nature takes shape.

You should be warned – Marriner clearly agrees with Gator’s words to a school guidance counsellor: “Like my grandfather was wont to say, Raq, ‘Swearing is deplorable … unless done well’.” But before you turn this page in disinterest or discard the notion of turning any of Stonedogs’ pages, you should know that there is a lot of intelligence in this book. Not just the show-offish brains of Gator, who has a breadth of reading and an understanding of wider social issues and history that would put many besuited commentators to shame, but the intelligence of subtlety. Characters – the male ones at the centre of this novel at least – are drawn beyond stereotype to depths that normally stay hidden, revealing the layers that lie within every individual, all appearances aside. Stonedogs also has plenty of humour, something sadly lacking in much New Zealand literature. Granted, it’s black as hell, but that’s infinitely preferable to po-facery. It’s also fresh and full of vitality. As well as arguing the case for slackers, Marriner’s tackling some big issues here: capitalism and consumerism, the environment, drug law reform, race relations, the nature of evil, females’ tendency toward mysticism, vegetarianism … It’s also a perceptive paean to mateship and the worry-free times of early adulthood.

But if most of that philosophical musing passes you by, what should keep you turning the pages to the end is that the quest for justice turns the book into a road “movie” that quickly becomes a thriller. The four head north to put a big kink in the usual route of the drug trade, and the necks of those who control it. If you’re starting to get the picture of a kitchen-sinking first novel, you’re not ridiculously far from the truth. But Marriner is smarter than that. Stonedogs is a brave take on a largely untouched subject. The dialogue is, for the most part, excellent, free of clangers that someone outside the milieu might have made, though Marriner’s need to phonetically transcribe so much of the demotic makes for tough reading sometimes. Very occasionally, a word crops up that seems well out of character; the only reason I mention this is that one is on the first page. The thrown-out drunk turns to face the bouncers. Gator imagines the ejectee has several words in mind to address them with: “Bastards? Pricks? Tyrants?” The last putative insult sticks out a mile. Attempting to cover so many bases means also that the author’s analysis may occasionally strike some as facile or out of place; a couple of times it did me, but, like Gator, I would plead for a bit of indulgence.

However, but in an oddly positive way, that indulgence was also my biggest issue. Far too often, the narrator is allowed to meander in his descriptions. He has to find some clever way of trying things on for size, angling for the perfect phrase, or perhaps hedging his bets. This only really irritated when I wanted to find out what had happened, when bare description should have been quite enough. After a moment of violence in the gang house, for instance, we find this passage:

In his life as a teenage party-goer, Mick has seen violence …
this current hand holds cards Mick has all his life prayed never to arrive.
This is capture by the Gestapo, awaiting interrogation.
This is a runaway cotton nigger, bloodhounds yapping in background.
And Mick is brought face to face with the filthy creature at his core. A stinking pariah who would sprint on a path of newborns were it the only route from an inferno.
A wretch he hopes lives in everybody.

 

Enough magniloquence: just tell us what happened.

Even after winning the Deutz Medal in the recent Montana New Zealand Book Awards, I doubt that Stonedogs’ potential audience will be hugely inflated. I mean, a book about New Zealand stoners? But that will be a pity. The question of whether Stonedogs deserved to win the Montana has already coloured plenty of headlines, and I don’t wish to add to the debate here. But as a first book, it is a sterling effort. With the rough edges bevelled and a subject more palatable to a wider audience, Marriner could easily carve out a very successful career for himself.

 

Mark Broatch is an Auckland journalist and author.

 

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