Another thing about Jake, Otto Heim

Jake’s Long Shadow
Alan Duff
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1869415116

The first impression of Alan Duff’s new novel makes you expect a work of probing substance. Its cover is reminiscent of Heretaunga Pat Baker’s Behind the Tattooed Face. Featuring Brian Brake’s photograph of an ancient tekoteko with an unfathomably dark eye, placed against the background of a moribund and haunted-looking forest, the cover suggests historical depth and a mythical gloom, which the portentous title, interposed between the carving and the forest, promises to penetrate. On the shelf the newcomer will occupy double the space of my Vintage edition of its predecessor, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?.

But first impressions are deceptive. A quick online search reveals that the third volume in what is now the Once Were Warriors trilogy is not really bigger than the New Zealand edition of the second. A look between its covers suggests that it is indeed much slighter: much blank space, chapters that on average are less than five pages long, with headings that take up more than half a page. This is reading that suits a hectic urban lifestyle. You can easily read a chapter or two on the bus, over a coffee break, or waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Only in that case the book’s bulky design is a bit of an inconvenience, unless it was meant to be an eye-catching conversation-opener.

Why was this book written and published? What reason other than to maximise profit by reinvesting the interest raised by the previous two Heke novels might have motivated Duff to return to his warrior/slave family for the second time since Once Were Warriors? One reason, plausible given the achievement of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, is that the characters have taken on a life of their own, that in their creator’s imagination they have acquired depth, a past and a future, worth further fictional exploration. The book’s cover and blurb indeed suggest such an interest, teasing us with questions about Jake (has he really grown up?), his daughter Polly (is that a Heke running with the wealthy polo-playing set and growing rich herself?), and the gang leader Apeman (what’s prison like, does it change a man, grow him or not?). Unfortunately, the answers (yes, yes, no) are predictable and the promise of deeper insight is not kept; in Jake’s Long Shadow, Duff’s characters are shallower than in the previous two novels.

2

In part,  this seems to be the effect of an experiment that doesn’t work. In a welcome move, Duff tries to develop his narrative voice in a new direction, making it less monologic and distributing multiple ideological points of view among different first-person narrators. The result, however, reveals the limitations of Duff’s narrative range and a loss of focus in characterisation. In the previous novels, most successfully in What Becomes, the intensity and credibility of the characters largely depended on Duff’s trademark style, a tour de force by which the narrator’s voice inhabited the characters’ interiors without ever fully identifying with them.

In Jake’s Long Shadow, this technique, which previously succeeded in bringing characters to life despite the author’s disapproval of them, gives way, not consistently but frequently, to an effort to harmonise narrative voice and point of view by delegating the narration to individual characters themselves. As a result, the language overall becomes bland, since the characters, rather than having their mental processes exposed, have to assume the work of narration, frequently recalling incidents from the earlier novels and voicing the messages of the author. Thus, instead of Duff trying to get the sound of Apeman’s mind, we get Apeman sounding like Duff.

As for the development of the characters’ lives six years on, Jake’s Long Shadow adds little to What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?. Whereas the second volume in the trilogy showed us Jake, Polly, and Abe gradually changing from passive outsiders to individuals assuming responsibility for their actions, and found vivid situations and images to convey such changes, its sequel hardly shows us these characters in action and instead continues to give us snapshots of their interior musings, which now are rather static. Time does pass in Jake’s Long Shadow, of course, but it does not inform the narrative texture of the novel, as action mostly takes place in the gaps between chapters. A somewhat tortuous reflection on time, apparently ascribed to Apeman, therefore seems to apply to all characters in the book:

Since time is not a living notion, as in taking from this point to that, as in like a plant – or a person – growing from a seed to a li’l plant to a big one to a bigger one and changing, of course changing, then time stands still. Time is not organic, it’s fixed, like your mind state, your behavioural pattern, your fixed assumptions and views on everything. You’re an inorganic organism.

 

A distaste for anything to do with “process” – a word that recurs conspicuously often in this novel, mostly referring to a political process Duff resents but doesn’t bother to scrutinise – appears to account for this lack of elaboration of the characters’ temporal dimension. Thus no attention is paid to action in context or to the processes by which intuitions, desires and inclinations are mobilised and take shape in action and are in turn shaped and altered by it, making personal development not entirely predictable over time. Instead, action is ruled by destiny, forming a straight line from idea through realisation to consequence, as if satisfying a need for immediate gratification that Duff blames Maori people for indulging.

In the course of three short chapters, for instance, Polly and her boyfriend decide to invest in Pine Block real estate, buy up, refurbish and resell 32 houses, and Polly has become “a nouveau riche materialist, a crass white woman”. When confronted by a bunch of thugs, Abe hopelessly fights “the process of being Jake Heke’s son” and the next thing we know he is convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for grievous bodily harm. In chapter 20, Sharneeta, a newly introduced character in this novel, is raped; two chapters later, she gives birth; and the next time we see her she is a single mother on welfare, ready to swing her baby against the wall. In chapter 44, Charlie Bennett after “three decades of thinking about it”, suddenly realises that he has wasted his time as a Maori welfare worker and resolves to quit his job and go into business. The exception is Alistair Trambert, who in this novel undergoes a process of maturation similar to that of Jake, Polly and Abe in What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?.

Such handling of his characters suggests that Duff doesn’t really care about them. How could he, when he consistently paints them as various shades of self-indulgence and self-pity? Nevertheless, there is evidence that the author harbours a lingering attachment to the Hekes, above all to Jake, who has aged with Duff and has become a reliable citizen, a man to turn to when something has to be done. There is a bond of identification between the author and his hero in Jake’s Long Shadow that was not as apparent in Once Were Warriors and its sequel. Indeed, the notion that Jake, who has celebrated his 50th birthday in this latest novel, has become something like a younger brother to Duff is not as farfetched as it may seem. The resolution of the novel’s central interest, Apeman’s surprisingly cunning plot of revenge against Abe, strongly depends on a character who in his first two appearances merely seems to be another nameless and imprisoned embodiment of the narrator. However, in chapter 29, he steps out of the shadow like a deus ex machina and identifies himself as Jake’s brother, doing a life sentence for a double murder and following Apeman in order to prevent him from killing Abe. Matty’s near identification with the author is borne out by the fact that he is the only character who has read Gerard Manly Hopkins, whom Duff quotes in two of his chapter headings.

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If Jake’s Long Shadow doesn’t satisfy the interest in its characters that the blurb stimulates, can readers instead expect to find an interesting development or further elaboration of the ideological message that has always figured prominently in Duff’s fiction? It would be unrealistic to expect that Duff, like Charlie Bennett, has suddenly changed his mind. In fact, his stance has hardened in his latest novel. In What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, while partly revising the solution offered in Once Were Warriors as too optimistic, he still envisioned the possibility of salvation for street kids, who met with Jake’s sympathy and found a viable role model in the rugby-playing Toots. In Jake’s Long Shadow, Duff fairly unequivocally advocates vigilantism as the solution to the problem of youth violence, even if Charlie refuses to accept it and Beth is mildly shocked by it. The idea is first aired by Jake’s brother and later carried out by Jake himself, finding the approval of the majority of the other characters in the novel.

Despite his dedication of the book to enlightenment, Duff’s understanding of processes of social and cultural reproduction is simplistic, and his critique of what he sees as the prevailing political situation in New Zealand never goes beyond polemic and caricature. In some respects, his views are plainly biased: to say that Maori culture is limited to warfare and knows nothing of trade, craft and intellectual endeavour is as silly as to maintain that Anglo-Saxon culture boils down racism. But even Duff’s single most important message, that the Maori are racially inferior because their genetic code is blighted by centuries of warfare, is most interesting when read against the grain. After all, although several of Duff’s mouthpiece characters assert that the warrior culture is to be blamed for the Maori failure to adjust to modernity, it is nevertheless largely qualities derived from such a culture – self-control, determination, competitiveness and stamina – that have allowed Jake and his surviving offspring to triumph over the circumstances of their birth, and equally appear to inspire Duff’s own pugnacious stance and his championing of the values of sport and business.

Similarly, for all his chiding of Maori for their lack of intellect, it is inevitably their physicality that redeems Duff’s Maori and Pakeha characters alike. A vigorous sexual imagination and drive distinguishes the good from the bad, so that Charlie experiences an immediate surge of sexual energy when he decides to quit his job and go into business, while lowlife criminals, for all their groping, are incapable of “even having sex, ‘cos sex is joy and these dudes don’t know joy.” Yet the psychological implications of this, which might actually question the novel’s pseudo-Lamarckian worldview, are without consequence in Duff’s story, suggesting that the sexual interest is mostly gratuitous, a teaser with possibly a link to a larger complex of fantasies.

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This leaves the most obvious reason for writing and publication of this book as the most plausible. The overriding motive behind Jake’s Long Shadow seems to be a desire to multiply the profits made on the previous two instalments of the Once Were Warriors saga. There is nothing wrong with that, since no one is forced to buy the novel, but Duff’s moralising against those who ride the gravy train of Maori politics and “accumulate status off the back of … scum” seems somewhat disingenuous.

It is no surprise that rumours the novel is to be made into a film cropped up on internet movie pages almost immediately after publication. The story with its mix of romance and violence, its contrast of a variety of New Zealand locales and its ending reminiscent of Casablanca, has obvious cinematic appeal. And there is hope in that, since a well–made film is likely to give texture to Duff’s plot and to flesh out the characters whom his language has this time failed to bring to life.

 

Otto Heim teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hong Kong.

 

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