Cantankerous, laconic and weird, Margot Schwass

Getting Away With It
Kevin Ireland
Hazard Press, $29.99,
ISBN 1877270792

Butler’s Ringlet
Laurence Fearnley
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 0143019198

A Man Who Eats The Heart
Josh Greenberg
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864734824

Together, these three novels suggest that the experience of being male in New Zealand is surprisingly rich in possibilities. You might cast a line to catch a rising trout in some sunlight stream. Swill shiraz with a few dishevelled colleagues in the university staff club. Hunt moths by moonlight in Southland, fabricate an ingenious personal history, or invent a range of terrifying futures involving murderous antique-dealing twins and a pack of huskies.

Many of the men who populate these novels are strong, and a few are laconic to the point of silence – but these are no Speights caricatures. They’re contradictory and complex. They talk too much or not enough. They’re clever, but sometimes unutterably dumb. They mess up their relationships. They are the kind of men for whom, in the incredulous words of Dean in Butler’s Ringlet, “things could suddenly turn to shit”.

Not an expression likely to fall from the pen of retired professor Kendill Motte, Kevin Ireland’s gloriously cantankerous creation – although he too certainly finds himself in the mire. Getting Away With It is Motte’s account of his self-made life, from delinquent orphan to distinguished Professor of History at Arch Hill University. This is no maudlin confession, he cautions, but “a straightforward record that will examine and explain what really happened”.

The catalyst is a phone call from a mysterious woman, Mary-Ann Pyke, who appears to know something about Motte that he would prefer remained secret. Unsettled and intrigued – even more so by his simultaneous discovery that he may be seriously ill – Motte decides to chronicle his murky past.

After a few pages in Motte’s company, it’s clear that little he tells us is straightforward and next to nothing is truthful. He informs us that he is “the most unreal person walking the planet”, a trickster who has successfully managed to sustain a façade for so long that even he has come to believe it. This is, Motte would have us believe, the true story of how he has managed “to get away with it” for so many years. But of course it isn’t. Far from laying bare his soul, Motte proceeds to supply Mary-Ann – and the reader – with even more fictions, more versions of the past. Is he a charlatan? A liar? A murderer? He toys with her, knowing she is clandestinely reading this “diary”, revising it in response to her snooping. This is history in the making, told by a calculating and vainglorious narrator for whom “what really happened” is a shifting and wholly malleable concept.

Interrupting Motte’s chronicle of a lifetime’s deceit are other stories – his relationship with the initially unlovely Mary-Ann, the battle between his bulging prostate and the surgeon’s spoon, the ugly world of Arch Hill University where his colleagues include backstabbers, ancient dipsomaniacs and “two old miseries [with] leaking nasal orifices … and disgusting communicable diseases”. Part diary, part low-key thriller, part romantic comedy, Getting Away With It is also something of a broadside against modern academia and “the mindless, tyrannical wrecking that has passed itself off as the New Scholarship”. Fittingly, Motte’s narrative uses every postmodern trick in the book – it’s self-referential, full of writing about the act of writing (“it’s an ongoing story and I haven’t got to the last page yet”, he reminds us), brimming with an awareness of the relativity of truth and the myth of authorial omnipotence.

In Kendill Motte, Kevin Ireland has created a consummately vile protagonist, the most compelling element in a novel that is playful and clever but perhaps not especially memorable. For me, the revelation of what Motte has been getting away with for so long – the denouement that his circular, tricksy narrative builds towards – is slightly disappointing.  Like a game of pass the parcel, the fun lies more in following the package’s progress and peeling back the layers than in unwrapping the final prize.

It’s a long way from Kendill Motte’s urban world of academic back-biting to the empty rural landscape of Butler’s Ringlet, Laurence Fearnley’s fourth novel. It tells the story of two friends in a small Southland farming community, both struggling with loss and love. Talkative, sociable Dean runs the family farm, hates his father, mourns his dead brother and doggedly looks for a wife through a lonely hearts agency. Warwick – immobilised by inarticulate love for his absent wife and child – has turned to moth collecting for solace. Now with Sabine and son Ecki about to return to New Zealand for a visit, Warwick has another chance to make their marriage work. But can he summon up the necessary words?

From the opening scene in which Dean runs over a possum late one Friday night, we’re in an uncompromisingly male world. Here, a packet of mallowpuffs makes an ideal present for a prospective blind date, a good shirt comes in aertex with a pocket big enough to hold a packet of smokes, and the local A&P show is the best day out imaginable. But Fearnley offers more than clichés, giving voice to observations Dean and Warwick would never find the words for. She shows us sleek working dogs that look “like dolphins leaping through water”; the sound of moth wings hitting a lamp like “hot fat touching cold water”; the oppressive silence of a bare ski-slope on a hot still day. Fearnley is a meticulous and lyrical recorder of the natural landscape.

Yet the narrative comes to share the defining qualities of that landscape. It too is weighed down with a kind of brooding inertia, making this a somewhat ponderous read. I also wondered why black-and-white photos (Fearnley’s own) of the Southland landscape are dotted throughout the text. They certainly underscore the sense of oppressive emptiness: there’s scarcely a human being in sight. But what else are they meant to contribute – a heightened sense of “reality”, an acknowledgement that this is a story played out within a recognisable, concrete world? And why?

What Butler’s Ringlet does best is go beyond the “Southern man” stereotypes to show the real people beneath the oilskins and the friendship they share. Fearnley’s narrative slides easily between her very different central characters. Straightforward, ever-hopeful, Dean’s voice leaps off the page. After a ghastly drunken encounter with the female undertaker at his father’s funeral, he recalls with a cringe: “No one but him could be that big a dick. She was just trying to make him feel better about himself. And he didn’t deserve to feel better about himself. Not after the way he had behaved. He was a wanker.” Warwick, by contrast, is all intensity and introspection; we seldom hear his voice, but see the world as he perceives it:

He remembered … how he had made Sabine miserable with his constant criticism over the lack of “nature” in Europe … He had been different. He had been used to large, open spaces – landscapes he could take in at a glance. He hadn’t yet learnt how to move across small areas of ground.

 

Butler’s Ringlet gives a voice to the silent and inarticulate rural bloke, and provides an intimate portrait of male friendship. It’s just a pity that nothing much happens.

By contrast, a great deal – perhaps too much – happens in A Man Who Eats The Heart. This is a wildly energetic maelstrom of a novel, spilling over with black humour, grotesque characters, terrifying crimes and unexpected tenderness.

Author Josh Greenberg is a young American who travelled to New Zealand by boat in 2003 to complete an MA in creative writing; he is now a fishing guide in Michigan. His central character, Nathan Locklier, is a young American who travels by boat to New Zealand to go fishing with world-famous fishing guru, Barry Trasch.

But Nathan is also a petty criminal, on the run from the thuggish antique-dealing Hoch twins whom he has foolishly crossed. Before catching the first freighter out of town, Nathan hooks up with the deeply damaged Jane Adams, one half of former child-star twins (shades of the frail, much-franchised Mary-Kate and Ashley). Together, Nathan and Jane embark on a month-long voyage across the Pacific, learning about each other, their fellow-passengers and a deeply unpleasant crew.  Disembarking in New Zealand, they meet Barry Trasch, once a respectable host of TV fishing programmes but now quite possibly a certifiable lunatic.

What begins as a back-country fishing trip turns into a heart-of-darkness journey towards love and redemption, with Barry as a kind of garrulous, lying, wild-haired Kurtz. And there are plenty of fishing tips too.

This is a novel that’s constantly on the go. The narration switches between Nathan and Jane; the plot moves between mid-ocean, the New Zealand bush and Nathan’s home town in Indiana. Sometimes the action takes place in the here-and-now, sometimes in the past and sometimes in an imagined parallel world where all Nathan’s shameful chickens are flying home to roost and the Hoch twins wreak terrible vengeance. There is warped comedy, crackling dialogue, moments of lyrical description, and a cast of captivating characters – from the Hoch twins (“gargoyles that had burst from their cement skins and stomped to my home town, raping and pillaging along the way”) to fragile Jane with her varicose veins (“supernovas dressed in violet”) and enduring memories of abuse.

For all the chaotic action, there’s a humane, perceptive sensibility at work here – one that sometimes cuts through the frenzy and delivers moments of quiet tenderness: “I woke to the dream of morning. Nathan was asleep and breathing softly. His chest showed his heartbeat. It looked like he’d swallowed a baby.” A Man Who Eats The Heart is weird, warm and so jam-packed with incident and character that you may want to read it again straightaway to catch all the bits you missed.

 

Margot Schwass is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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