Royce, Royce, the People’s Choice
Random House, $26.95,
Peter Hawes’s new novel is a big, jocular and elaborate fishing yarn. The tale-telling is strenuously masculine, prodding, very physical. As you read, you feel as though you’re jammed in a smoke-filled bar. The narrator keeps nudging you in the ribs but you decide you’d better bide your time before complaining. Hawes’s “story of a young man and the sea” comes complete with hooks, barbs and somewhat off-coloured flaky bits.
Royce, Royce, the People’s Choice is a very mixed bag of a book. It is quirky and predictable, sexually explicit and sensually blank. It’s difficult to identify precisely what the author has hauled up out of the sea off Westport.
The book opens with the insipid ruminations of Graham Daly (MA) – headmaster at Westport Technical College. Daly, thankfully, is merely a functional device. He’s there to convey necessary background information and that’s economically sketched in.
Royce Rowland, a teenage pupil, is in trouble, again. He’s a bit of a hoon really but most people, Daly included, seem to have a soft spot for him. Tommy, the adolescent hero’s father, was also a likeable larrikin. On a scorching summer’s day back in 1965, he got his buttocks sunburned on Westport’s North Beach during an adulterous sexual encounter. Laura, his wife, saw the guilty posterior glowing that night. She started divorce proceedings next morning. Royce was four. Tommy shot through and disappeared while fishing off the coast of Opunake. Royce was seven.
We sail rapidly from the headmaster’s study to a classroom and meet Royce himself. He’s seventeen. It is spring, 1978. And the young man is … unsurprising. In fact, there’s something numbingly familiar about him. I suspect there’s a pupil like Royce Rowland in every fictional classroom – or every real one for that matter. This teenager is dumb and knowing. He can remember fragments from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but thinks the poem was written by Samuel Wordsworth. Royce is an amusing nuisance. He pales in comparison with James Dean making that mooing noise in the observatory in Rebel Without A Cause but he draws attention to himself in similar ways. He certainly does risible things with a banana. Some of the girls in his class think it’s funny – the way he holds it.
Most of this classroom material is pretty jejune stuff and it’s hard to ignore the suggestion that the author shares his sense of humour with most of the characters. Photographs designed to enhance and support the fictional text are placed at the head of every new chapter. So, yes, there’s a shot of that resonantly suggestive piece of fruit at the top of p12.
Mrs Hartley, the lad’s teacher, can’t help liking him, though, in spite of the banana by-play. Of course, we’re also encouraged to like Royce or at least to tolerate him. We can’t avoid this really. Apart from a few jumps to other, older characters such as Bob Dodds and Dooley Morgan, we will encounter the rest of the novel as though we’re embodied in Royce Rowland’s Adonis-like frame. This isn’t always a comfortable place to be but it does get better when Royce is sent to sea, as a form of periodic detention, on Bob Dodds’s boat, the Aurora. We should be grateful that Royce Rowland doesn’t suffer from motion-sickness.
Peter Hawes writes with precision and vigour once he heads out from Westport into the Tasman Sea. The maritime scenes are particularly well realised. The author effectively captures the dangers and anxieties of working life on a small fishing boat. Royce Rowland learns a great deal about commercial fishing, and so does the reader in between the jigs and the reels of the plot. The first major turn in the story occurs when Royce sets a clandestine line. He fantasises about hauling up a giant squid. Instead he manages to catch a massive northern bluefin tuna using a shark-hook, half a snapper, an old bolt, and one of the skipper’s crescent wrenches. The author’s description of the bluefin tuna, its struggles to free itself, and its ultimate landing on the deck of the Aurora, is one of most powerful sequences in the whole novel. The fish is a beautiful thing and there’s no authorial embarrassment in letting us know this fact. It’s the one scene in the novel where we feel there is a genuine emotional commitment to … well … anything. Indeed, if the human figures had been portrayed as vibrantly and as believably as this 716-pound tuna, we would have had a thoroughly engrossing novel.
The plot takes the action from Westport all the way to Japan and back, and Hawes also vividly conveys the sense of bustling life in the seedier parts of Tokyo and Fujinomiya. In these Japanese sequences, there is an obvious authorial relish for cultural difference.
However, Royce, Royce, the People’s Choice doesn’t always work as a coherent and fully formed novel. Hawes tells us in a foreword that his research for the book took him to sea as a deckhand and that he visited all the important places on Royce’s odyssey. That information is illuminating. Because the most vividly presented sequences in this story are those where the writer has had to gather new experience. What has been familiar to the author since his birth, the fishing port of Westport, for example, simply fails to come to life. The reader never feels the actuality of those eerily wide thoroughfares of Peter Hawes’s home town. Streets – such as Brougham and Palmerston – are named but they lie inertly on the page. Westport, in this novel, has plenty of characters but scarcely any character itself. When we make fictions we transform our experiences; transcriptions from reality never read like the real thing.
There are other problems, too, and they seem to be inherent in the author’s handling of the seriocomic genre. Authentic comic writing can survive perfectly well without facetiousness. But Hawes insists on making jokes at any price. So Royce, Royce, the People’s Choice is marred by some truly awful word-play. Hawes’s editor should have struck out his appalling Chinese arsonist pun, and he or she ought to have queried the unacknowledged presence of a short story title in a line of dialogue: “Betty, do you think robots dream about electric sheep?” Well, yes, I’m sure they do in Philip K Dick’s original and imaginative literary world. But in the world of Peter Hawes’s novel, we are stuck with a male adolescent’s dreams. And they tend to take the form of extremely dubious gynaecological examinations. Royce Rowland may be a choice character for some readers but not for this one.
Russell Haley’s novel Tomorrow Tastes Better was reviewed in our October 2002 issue.