Nigel Cox, Damien Wilkins

Nigel Cox (1951-2006)

We pay tribute to the novelist’s life and work with this 2004 Tarzan Presley launch speech by his friend and fellow-novelist Damien Wilkins.

Tarzan Presley, as the title tells us, is a topical story about an unusual adoption case. A small defenceless child loses his parents and is fostered by a loving, if rather hairy family. He is then adopted by a nice, if somewhat pious couple seeking a replacement for their own lost son, and the adoptee overcomes the odds and goes on to some success, while naturally remaining haunted by questions of his origin. Who am I? Where did I come from? Why can I climb trees so well?

That the foster family is a group of gorillas set down in the Wairarapa, and that the adoptive couple are called Gladys and Vernon Presley, from Memphis, may seem at first to the reader experienced in the adoption genre … problematic. After all, the usual social agency channels which might help our hero through his difficulties appear in this case rather … distant. How can this person who has gained the world but lost his place find true connection?

I can assure you – it’s part of my job to do so – that these sensitive social issues are handled with the same sort of deftness and good taste that’s displayed on the cover of this book by the female figure’s neat deployment of a large – perhaps over-large – pair of binoculars and indeed by the male figure’s happy thrust into the path of a beautifully tapered, if strangely free-standing, fern.

The fern and the binoculars are of course deeply emblematic. The native fern proves that Tarzan and in fact Elvis were basically New Zealanders. And the binoculars are a stand-in for the author, they communicate the writer’s fervent wish for a sort of long-sightedness. “Here,” he seems to be saying to us, “you’ll need these. I’m going to ask you to look at things with new eyes.” As for the gorilla fighting the giant weta down in this corner, well that’s just very silly.

Years ago, around the time Nigel’s second novel Dirty Work came out, I remember a conversation we had. We were talking about what it took to write a novel. Nigel had already written two so I was listening more or less at his knee. Nigel said that he thought it required the writer to be a little … and I think the word he used was “dumb”. A little ignorant, not exactly unthinking, but a little bit free of watchfulness, a bit dense. You had to be really really smart and interesting and skilled – of course – but also some basic stupidity was going to help. I think the implication was that the mind which saw around everything was never going to get the work done. To write a novel was to see things partially, from some limited vantage. That was its triumph, its individuality, its oddness, to embrace the errors of personal feeling, to be, in short, wrong about the world.

Tarzan Presley is wonderfully, deliberately, intricately, dumb. It is wrong. And it is also a triumph.

What I admire and love about Nigel’s work is that he’s found a way to write freely, without caution, and with terrific personal feeling. He’s writing books that are firmly in his voice – it’s recognisably him, that self-chiding, disarmingly direct, marvellously engaging voice – and he’s writing books that play to his obsessions – music, cultural history, entomology, museums – but he’s also writing books which open out surprisingly and generously to the reader. This is important because there might be some people out there who don’t like Elvis and don’t much care for Tarzan either.

I’m here to assure you – it’s part of my job – that Tarzan Presley may be the work of a fan – an Elvis fan, a Tarzan fan – it certainly would never have happened without the fan’s closeness, that intimacy which can tip towards an unhealthy pathology – but the thing is, Nigel has built the narrative on an utterly brilliant conceit and written it in a prose that understands the natural resistance felt by the non-fan. The novel proceeds on a giant leap of faith while maintaining a core of doubt. Believers and infidels both welcome here. And you need never have watched Elvis’ 68 Comeback Special to attend. Plus the novel’s funny as hell.

Tarzan Presley is uncanny in the way it wrestles the reader to the ground without seeming to lay a finger on him or her. But I also think it’s canny, in that you do finish the book with a set of recommendations in your head. Recommendations to do with music, for sure – you feel you could email the author and he’d happily send out a soundtrack for the book – it’d be a triple CD of some
good stuff  –  but also there are more subtle recommendations, to do with some rather grand themes such as how you live your life, and how optimism can figure in that project. This book is strangely, persuasively sunny.

The New Zealand Listener review called Tarzan Presley a love letter to American popular culture, which may be true, but in the way that letter is delivered, in the way the stories it tells are stolen, put to different music, it’s got to be a love letter to us, to New Zealand. Tarzan’s sickness for home has got to be a fond inscription of the author’s own tell-tale symptoms. He’s come ten thousand miles to stand in a bookshop in winter; I think he might miss us nearly as much as we miss him. Here’s Nigel.


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