On River Road
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Hazard Press, $24.95,
Three books, all works of fiction, all by men who will not see 50 again, all of whom have previously published a number of other books, with (I imagine) varying degrees of success, both critical and popular. My contemporaries, then, although I have never read any of them before. Why not? Perhaps because I don’t read a lot of novels, perhaps because I have not lived in New Zealand these many years, perhaps because I simply have not had the opportunity. There may be something to be said for coming to an author fresh when they and you are on the wrong side of 50. At least we have in common the shared delusions of popular culture.
I wasn’t very far into Chris Else’s On River Road when I started to think about casting. Specifically, I began to wonder who would play Lisa, a journalist and the partner of the novel’s hero, gardener Joe Marino. It was an impulse to see her in the flesh, as it were, and it was strong enough to make me pause. I realised I was reading the book as I would a screenplay: in other words, I was seeing the story, the characters and the setting and yet, at the same time, imagining what they would look like when it was made. If this seems unfair to the book, it is; but the feeling persisted and in the end I gave up trying to resist it.
On River Road is about a group of characters in a small town, most of them professionals who have known each other for a very long time, some since school days. They are at a point where the comfortable certainties which have sustained them for so long are beginning to break down under various stresses and strains. The inciting incident, to lapse once more into script-speak, is the death of Joe’s 16-year-old daughter in a hit-and-run accident. This has occurred some time previous to the novel’s opening, but Joe has still not come to terms with it; it is his search for the perpetrator of the crime which drives the action and along the way we are given a portrait of the Tribe, as the group of friends call themselves, in a process of dissolution or, at the very least, re-evaluation. There is an inter-marital murder committed; there are affairs contemplated and consummated; home truths are spoken; a great deal of alcohol is consumed; and by the end of the book the crime has been solved, though not punished, and the Tribe is, one assumes, forever changed.
The interlinked stories are told by an omniscient narrator who shifts point of view from character to character, seamlessly, with a deal of sophistication, a deft ear for dialogue and an acute though never judgemental eye for human foibles. Chris Else does his women as well as his men with a high degree of conviction and he handles a large ensemble with aplomb although, as you would expect, there are those whose presence is less distinct than some of the others; for instance, a plot line about a psychotherapist languishes unresolved. Hence my anxiety about casting, perhaps.
His book is not, of course, a screenplay and is, despite some fairly lurid action towards the end, probably too complex in action and too psychological in intent to make a feature film. Its equivalent in the electronic media would be a television mini-series, of the kind made so brilliantly over the years in Britain. No-one in New Zealand presently would attempt to dramatise a fiction like this for television, and why should they? It is a perfectly good book, whose only flaws are a perhaps unbelievable excess of sexual magnetism in the hero and a somewhat orthodox identification of the villains of the piece as arriviste nouveau riche; but, that said, even the sexual glamour of Joe Marino is determinedly undercut by our insight into his dogged, bewildered unhappiness, as women all over town are stepping seductively into his path. Indeed, it is this aspect of On River Road – Joe’s outward charisma and inward doubt – which I found most interesting.
If On River Road is a mini-series, I thought, turning to the next book, then Tarzan Presley is surely a cartoon. The notion of conflating two culture heroes like Tarzan and Elvis Presley into the one character and then giving the portmanteau personality an afterlife certainly seems cartoonish, especially since the gorilla band which raises the child lives in the Bush – not the generic New Zealand ngahere but that part of the south-eastern North Island which used to be known in rugby-playing circles as Wairarapa-Bush. But Nigel Cox does not make a comic of his self-described, possibly daft idea; on the contrary, he takes it seriously so that, if you can suspend disbelief, you are treated to a contemplative, indeed philosophical treatment of the merged stories.
Jane, in this telling, is an entomologist who comes to the Bush in the 1950s to study the giant wetas which live there; Tarzan has already discovered the shack where his (unknown and unidentified) parents lived, with its ingenious link to a windmill which generates enough power to run a radio even after the suicide of his father, who was, we learn, predeceased by his wife. It is from this radio that Tarzan learns to sing the popular songs of the day; and the generative windmill itself provides a central metaphor of the book. For Tarzan Presley’s quest is, on the one hand, to become a human being and on the other to penetrate, in the words of an obscure Sydney poet, the heart of the world’s electricity.
It took me a long time to get into this book; and a long time to get out of it, too. It isn’t structured as a mystery, it doesn’t rely on suspense or narrative surprises to keep you reading. Rather, you read it as a twice-told tale, perhaps in the way we will watch the remake of King Kong presently, and just as improbably, being filmed in New Zealand. The most intriguing aspect to me was the identity of the narrator – at least until I realised that it is revealed in the blurb on the back cover of the book: a mistake, I think. This narrator mostly writes of Tarzan in the third person, as any conventional biographer would; but there are (deliberate) slips here and there which suggest a more intimate acquaintance with the subject; and so it proves.
It is the narrative voice of Tarzan Presley which makes the book: a voice of experience meditating upon a life of outrageous innocence from a remote and distant perspective which turns out, geographically, to be the northern rivers of New South Wales. This shift pleased me, not least because I learned recently that Owsley Stanley, sound man for The Grateful Dead and pioneer chemist of the LSD revolution, is also living out his days in some quasi-fictive location in eastern Australia. Perhaps Elvis Lives is more than an anagram seeking apotheosis.
But to return to that voice … what is most impressive is the way in which Nigel Cox manages to merge his authorial voice with that of his chimerical narrator, so that you are never entirely sure if you are reading the words of a contemporary speaking directly to you or those of a constructed persona. This merging of author and narrator, mirrored in the merging of Tarzan and Elvis, allows an intimacy of tone and reflection which makes the twice- or thrice- or myriad-times told tale consistently delightful to read. It becomes most personal in those parts of the book where an analogy is drawn, never strictly, between Tarzan’s progress into the world and the processes of child-rearing: we learn, very late in the book, why the narrator so often refers to the pleasures of living with small children but for most of the time I, at least, assumed the author was writing about the overwhelming tenderness and sometimes perplexity he feels with his own kids.
This is also, inevitably, a book about rock ‘n’ roll: what it is, how it came about, why we love it, what went wrong, and how it will never die. No-one’s version is quite the same as anyone else’s but that’s why fans who read, read other versions so avidly. I feel rather more affection for some of Elvis’s post-Sun Session sides than does Nigel Cox – if it is him and not his narrator speaking – but that’s probably more about how and when I first heard them than it is about actual musical quality. On the other hand, what is musical quality? Or rather, what is soul?
The middle section of the book, set in 1950s-70s America, is a sustained inquiry into this very question: Sam Phillips knew what it was but did the Colonel? Here we come to a place not so very far from the locus of original sin. The demise of the artist Tarzan Presley, whose only assets are his soul and his voice, is linked with the character’s attempt to understand good and evil, categories he grew up entirely in ignorance of. The solution to this dilemma in a kind of angelology is one of the unforgettable graces of the third, and last, section of the book.
Mike Johnson’s Stench is definitively located in genre: it is a teen-flick horror movie set in small town New Zealand with an implicit acknowledgement of the works of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, although Johnson’s Hikitarua is somewhere on the Canterbury Plains, not in the North Island. There is another, crucial difference: the horror in Hikitarua is metaphysical, not, as in Morrieson’s fictions, a consequence of scandalous human misbehaviour. A group of bored teenagers in a summer irritated by incessant nor-westerlies breaks into an old hospital and prises open a trapdoor from which the malodorous stench of the title emanates – with catastrophic results.
Cinematic as the book is, it would nevertheless be difficult if not impossible to film, simply because the central mystery, the malignity lurking inside the trapdoor, is expressed odoriferously, not visually. There have been experiments with odorama, so called, in the cinema; but I doubt that anyone would want to release this stench from their scratch-cards, even (or especially) in the dark.
Stench’s narrative invention, like that of Tarzan Presley, is what carries the book. The grisly tale is told by Baby, a big lunk of a girl who is, everyone assumes, intellectually disabled. She is in the special class at school, has trouble with language – her sentences, primitive as they are, tend to come out in reverse word order – and lives partly in a fantasy world. She is, perhaps, a kind of autiste; given a privileged view of what her mind is like, we quickly realise she has a degree of psychological insight denied the normals she moves among. Not that these normals are particularly normal. Like a degenerate Famous Five, without Timmy the dog, they are bent in various ways by their histories, their desires and most of all by their hopeless vulnerability both to each other and to the evil force abroad in the hospital. Because Baby lives half in a shadow world already, she can see the dysfunction of her brother and his friends as well as the shapeless malevolence living in the trapdoor – if living is the right word.
Stench is conventionally plotted and resolved: not a criticism, since genre requires in the main that you keep to the rules. Its innovations – the olfactory monster, the autistic narrator – are sufficient to keep our interest; and the insights of Baby into the behaviour and misbehaviour of her friends, along with her observation of others in the town, including her parents, teachers at the school and the local cops, are the matter of the book. She accurately and wittily describes the progress of the shared delusion of her cohorts, and especially her older brother Adrian, in a way that will massage the fears, and possibly increase the insight, of parents of teenagers everywhere. The gruesome horror of the ending, with its vision of a hell in which the buried secrets of the town exact awful retribution upon its somnolent residents, is followed, after the escape and rescue of the heroine, by a sinister twist in the very last word of the book: a consummate performance.
Anyone born post-WWII who writes novels will find their fictions inflected by the seductiveness of cinema, even though most films are bad in the way most books are not. Tarzan Presley, of these three novels, probably best escapes the perhaps unfair comparison with the visual media, mostly because its main reference is to that other great cultural behemoth of our time, popular music. On River Road and Stench cannot help evoking film because their primary modes are also the modes of screenplay writing: visual description, action and dialogue. Never mind that their thematic focus is psychological, that the dramas they construct are interior dramas, to do with how people think and feel, not so much with how they look and behave; because their language is referential, and refers essentially to a realist model, the lure of the screen as a means of experiencing the book will always be there.
Tarzan Presley is different: not because it is improbable but because it is made primarily out of thought, not action, and hence its language is the language of reflection, not reference. As a way of coming to terms with popular culture, it is intrinsically more demanding to read and, crucially, invites rereading. This is not to disparage the two other books under review; it is simply an attempt to define how they differ. Plausible though it is, we never believe for a moment in the objective reality of Tarzan Presley, and so are released from the dependence upon realism, as the author is released from the need to prove the veracity of his fiction: to lead us, seemingly at will, into uncharted territory. I’d like to suggest Nigel Cox now turn his attention to that other twice-told tale, the life of Jimi Hendrix as a Maori bought up, not in Seattle, but in a small town in the Bay of Plenty. You could film that one.
Martin Edmond’s essay Ghost Who Writes is reviewed on p13.