The Cowboy Dog
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
In a way the titles say it all. It’s as if, in naming these novels (Cox’s sixth, Wilkins’ fifth), both authors were wryly summing up their literary selves. I was about to call it literary “persona”, but that would be wrong. A persona requires – or at least suggests – a degree of detachment and artifice on the writer’s behalf, and these two writers don’t do detachment; they inhabit their fiction boots and all. To read their work is to be aware that you are spending time in the authors’ company. So much so that reading the two novels consecutively came to feel like a social assignment – the authors as dinner companions. Not, perhaps, at the same meal; in style and territory Wilkins and Cox are so dramatically unalike it’s difficult to imagine them sharing a table and their readers’ attention.
There’s Wilkins with the unfolded serviette and nice old-fashioned manners. He’s talking about the lives of his friends at home and abroad in a way that has you marvelling at his knowledge, his meticulous observation, his fluency of speech, his decency and discretion. This is a clever and sensitive man. A chap you can trust; his words ring with authenticity, details are finely observed; there is a notable absence of hype, of cultural tinsel. An absence, too, of malice.
But, to be honest, he does go on a bit. You find yourself wondering how relevant some of those finely captured details really are, and when he is going to get to the point. Or whether there’ll be one. Or have I missed it? Did it waft subtly over my head? And, does wanting there to be a point make me a philistine? It seems the writer doesn’t mind if you stifle a yawn or sneak a glance at your watch. Your impaired attention span is, after all, not his problem. If what Wilkins was saying wasn’t so thoroughly admirable and beautifully eloquent, you might be inclined to think him a little insensitive.
And here’s Cox, larger than life and shamelessly lowering the tone. Thumping the table, turning up the music, fudging the facts, eyeballing issues …. Paying homage, still, to the 60s when the US cultural invasion captured thousands of young and wildly grateful Kiwis and kept us hostage, living out the rest of our lives as a particular species of hybrid North American New Zealanders. A ridiculous blend of rustic understatement and sentimental flamboyance that Cox has captured and celebrated in this and previous novels.
Cox is bent on entertaining himself as much as his dinner companions. Yet it’s a performance, in the sense that he is aware of his audience – our expectations and our shortcomings. He doesn’t want us feeling inadequate and he knows about sound bites and modern attention spans. Cox is plugged into the here-and-now, in all its madness and all its detritus. He’s inherently, effortlessly hip. (And, yes, I am, of course, aware that The Cowboy Dog was completed shortly before Cox’s premature death, and it may seem inappropriate of me to write of him fancifully and in the present tense. But I think it’s OK – there’s nothing in the author’s writing to suggest that being appropriate was ever a virtue he aspired to.)
In print Wilkins, as novelist, sticks to the third person. We sense the author hovering sympathetically, discreetly, among his characters. Cox is a first-person man – the narrator/main character is invariably centre stage, muscular and idiosyncratic.
Given two very good writers whose styles are so consistently and dramatically different, preference becomes a declaration of personal taste. Or bias. Posterity will, I’m sure, favour Wilkins’ timeless and classically elegant prose. But it’s Cox who lifts me up and takes me … not exactly where I belong, but to places I recognise with delight even though they are of his own invention. Cox who takes me – and, if they want to come, all those other middle-aged New Zealanders with juke-box-cowboy hearts – along for the ride. And it’s kind of an in-joke, the novel as a comic strip, but it’s more than that; for Cox clearly loves these OTT characters he’s invented, or plucked from our collective psyche. Against the odds he makes them believable. We empathise. We care.
Also, there’s the music. It shouldn’t, I guess, make a difference – but it does. Music and musical mythology frequently seep into Cox fiction, and The Cowboy Dog is no exception. And it’s the kind of music I happen to know and love. So what? you may think, if you prefer Bach. Classical music often crops up in literature. But the blues? Rock ‘n’ roll? Such a huge cultural force, yet how often does it get an appreciative mention?
Both The Cowboy Dog and The Fainter are true to their authors’ established styles and territory. So nothing here to frighten the horses or upset the book reps and devoted readers. And, given the critical approval both writers – but especially Wilkins – have received in the past, why would they want to change the mix? Acclaim from overseas, but also at home: Wilkins’ first novel, The Miserables, was a New Zealand Book Award winner and Cox was twice runner up for the Montana New Zealand Book Awards with Tarzan Presley and Responsibility, and three times short-listed for that major award.
The Fainter (it means just that – Luke, the central character, is prone to fainting) is essentially a meticulously observed, totally believable portrait of a small rural group of relations and friends. We meet them via Luke who is a guest on his sister’s South Island farm where he is resting and recuperating. He has been dispatched home from New York and his job with the UN in order to recover from the distress of having witnessed a random murder.
The novel paints an intricate, if rather pastel-toned, portrait of social life – mostly down on the farm – and the dialogue is superb. Instead of a plot or storyline there is the fragmented and sometimes frustrating integrity of REAL. Ends don’t tie up, incidents remain unexplained. I approve of all this but it didn’t stop me feeling vaguely short-changed.
And, feeling short-changed, I took exception to the italicised headings that apparently serve as chapter breaks. These brief exclamatory outbursts (“What are you doing?”; “A victory for tradition”; “Is it late?” …) seemed imposed and a bit pretentious. Certainly they were at odds with the rest of the text. Perhaps I ought to have found them amusing. According to the blurb, The Fainter is a comedy of manners. But if Wilkins’ tongue was in his cheek, it must be a very small, very subtle tongue.
Possibly humour could be dredged from the middle-class squeamishness – a kind of surfeit of sensitivity – that seems to infect most of the characters, but I thought that was simply the believable outcome of privileged and sheltered lives. I didn’t find it amusing, but I admit to the occasional urge to shake the characters, or slap them about. The morally dubious Alec (the closest we get to a baddie) was, for me, by far the most interesting, while Luke the fainter was so achromatic it hardly mattered that the important events of his life seemed mostly to happen off the pages.
Or possibly I am obtuse. But you don’t read Wilkins for a page-turning plot or unforgettable characters, you read him for the awe-inspiring elegance of his prose. You are (well, I am) enthralled by the way he selects and presents small irrelevant details – the absolute authenticity this conveys. Yet at the same time you’re wishing someone had suggested, or insisted on, some judicious reader-friendly pruning. As they say in New York, too much information already.
The Cowboy Dog takes us back to the bleakly beautiful Volcanic Plateau, as if the place had been waiting, like a studio set, since Skylark Lounge. But this time there are no aliens, only ornery cattlemen, snakes, cacti, the highway, the pylons and the vast longhorn cattle ranch that once belonged to Chester Farlow’s Daddy. But Daddy is dead, shot down by a land-hungry coward called Stronson, and 12-year-old Chester heads for Auckland where he’s taken in hand by a couple of characters that could have slipped from the pages of Dirty Work. Six years later, older but only marginally wiser, Chester alias Mr Dog is back to avenge Daddy’s death.
Cornball, yes. And fun. But the novel is not a spoof, and only pretends to be lightweight. As a writer, Cox has always been concerned with social issues and conundrums, and this time, though well in the background, there’s a plea for the conservation of our untamed places. According to publisher VUP, The Cowboy Dog is an “extension of the series of novels in which Nigel Cox reconfigures New Zealand experience through the most resonant myths of our time”. That’s probably right, but don’t let it put you off. The Cowboy Dog is a fine story, full of pathos, charm and bullshit. It’s bloodthirsty and flawed, but you can smell the campfires, it canters along at a decent speed, and it’s full of songs I know and lyrics that carry no acknowledgement, so I imagined the author taking pleasure in being a writer of songs.
Like Cox’s recent novels, The Cowboy Dog feels like a gift from the past. I can’t say how sad I am that there will be no more to look forward to.
Sue McCauley lives in Waitahora Valley where she is still working on a novel she began last century.