Where the boys are, Penelope Todd

Whale Pot Bay
Des Hunt
HarperCollins, $18.99,
ISBN 978869507305

The River Runs
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $18.00, 
ISBN 9781877423222

Violence 101
Denis Wright
Penguin Books, $18.95,
ISBN 9780143304036

These three books with male protagonists each cover, to varying extent, bullying, sociopathy, and heroism in the outdoors (with lives saved – from tsunami, river submersion, or crevasse). They offer three different ways of presenting the bad guys: Hunt’s snooping reporter and P addict is told from an outside, undiscriminating boy’s view; we read Hill’s (reformable) bully from the protagonist’s perspective, but also hear from the bully himself; Wright speaks mostly from the horse’s mouth – the horse being a highly intelligent and angry boy.

Two of the books have girls attacked by magpies that are thwarted (more or less) by boys; two made me shed a tear; all three caused me to scoff mildly over the eventual avalanche of incident; two pleased the child in me; one the adult – and made me think very hard.

Des Hunt’s Jake is 13 and resistant to change when, after years of “two males enjoying their isolation” (at Whale Pot Bay on the Wairarapa coast) “without the interference of others”, his father brings home a woman with an emotionally fragile daughter. Hunt specialises in action and suspense, here packed around a double kernel of social discomfort and environmental concern – in this case the attempt to blend families, and the plight of whales. He throws out all his hooks for the reader, and doesn’t baulk at using for bait a rock star, a slimeball, a psychopath, a baby pygmy sperm whale, a heart (and a magpie) attack, and a thundering finale that splits the goats from the sheep.

Hunt’s language is solid and efficient. Place is simply and competently evoked. The male characters display credibly blunt and slightly misplaced emotional responses: after the rip-roaring dénouement it takes a sappy song for Jake to feel “stronger emotions than I’d ever felt before”.

My inner 11-year-old lapped up the implausibly relentless action and Steph’s ability to commune with the whale; she didn’t ask why Jake wouldn’t just tell someone about the creep hiding out in the bay, or how come the baddies always have pertinent conversations beside the hero’s hiding place. She relished the tsunami of mayhem, delighted in the near misses, the final, just apportioning of good and ill, and the 80 per cent happy ending.

David Hill’s The River Runs begins on New Year’s Day 1967, and Chris’s resolutions include obtaining a pair of cuffless trou, and nagging his parents into getting a TV so he can watch Star Trek. He’s going to be in form two this year, and plans to figure out how to stop being bullied by his bulky older cousin and champion wrestler Roger, who lives on the dairy farm next door. Whereas Hunt lets his baddies be just that, Hill gives Roger a chance to explain himself. Chris is a perfectly likely narrator – far more writerly than Hunt’s energetically charged Jake: he’s nerdy, thin and bookish, an observer, daydreamer and weigher-up. But you have to wonder, is brawny Roger laboriously writing in a diary? “I didn’t mean to … I’d just wanted to shake him up. Jeez, I’ve ended up hurting enough from the holds guys have put on me.” The device lets the reader see the misunderstandings that exist between the two boys, but also makes you uneasily aware of the author’s attempts to build sympathy.

The summer days tick by, chock-full of incident at river or cow shed, and of archival material (rural party line phones, imminent decimalisation, Elvis Presley turning 32). Chris is on the innocent side of adolescence, quaintly aware that the girls (cousin and neighbour) are changing shape, and surprised to observe the effects on himself.

After a mild beginning the story picks up pace, and the reader begins to care how Roger will soften, how Chris will toughen, and how soon the rickety bridge will collapse under the racketing weight of the local hoons’ truck. The two boys move towards accommodation and grudging respect; Roger will stay at school after all; Chris will work on adding muscle to his puny frame.

Experienced and reliable writers, the two DHs have the knack for gripping rural adventure stories in unobtrusive prose (tending, in Hill’s case, towards finer shadings and a subtler psychology), and these new books deliver what their readers expect.

Denis Wright takes risks in his debut novel, starting with the title, Violence 101. The story opens as Hamish Graham, 14, has just arrived in his third institution for young offenders, once known as Borstal. The staff are having the first of many discussions about the perplexing young thug. Hamish is very intelligent, from a “good” home, apparently fearless, and drawn to violent heroes and violent deeds. He feels his place was in a former age, when his unflinching capacity for stratagem and pain would have been recognised and applauded. He’s instructed to write a journal about himself – an attractive task for a boy who’d sooner think than speak. He writes determinedly and at length about violence – its taboo as a subject of discussion, its vitality for invention, its purging outcome in war, and the causes and effects of his own (usually) calculated acts of cruelty. He is lucid, precise and logical. He harbours no sentiment, loathes stupid (ie most) people, and readily justifies his disturbing acts (if only he could control his anger when it fills his head with a rushing white noise …).

Some critics have called this a funny novel; but the humour is dead black. To me, “funny” requires an almost accidental element, and warmth, but Hamish’s jokes are strategic and at the cost of someone or something else’s pain.  However, I can appreciate the irony in the legitimisations that occur over time and space, so that history paints (Hamish’s three heroes) the colourfully murderous Alexander “great”, and Te Rauparaha and Charles Upham heroic.

Hamish opens a whole slippery can of questions. Which acts of violence may be deemed socially defensible once the dead have disappeared along with their generations, and if the outcome now seems favourable enough? Where should the line be drawn in experimentation with animals for the good (and how good is that?) of humans? How much risk-taking and discipline should be allowed (or enforced) in our educational, reformative or military institutions? Hamish’s chill, distant perspective, and his professed fearlessness of death, poke at our collective squeamishness over pain, physical punishment, and stoicism, and underscore our individual failure, or rather our lack of necessity, to take our survival (or death) into our own hands. But we abhor those who do, except within the sanctioned spaces of war.

As fiction readers, we’ve grown comfortable with the reliable first-person narrator who leads a reader through the checks and balances of his own thinking, but when a narrator is seeking to justify what most of us detest and skirt around, and is doing it as intelligently as Hamish (and at such a young age), you can’t help looking for the writer writing him. It might be argued that Hamish is too sharp, too aware of the wider picture and of how others perceive him. Now and then the language and knowing of a middle-aged man are apparent. Some of that evidence might have been expunged with closer editing, although in the end Hamish is an uncomfortably believable, even likeable, young man.

Wright’s story seems as much an exercise in apologetics as in storytelling, so it almost jars when we’re thrown from the clear train of Hamish’s thoughts into the chaos of a blizzard on a mountain near Ruapehu. As in the other two books, the ending is beset by an unlikely concatenation of events and characters, made less welcome in Violence 101 by the restraint evident until now. A note of relief is sounded in the last pages, but the mind goes back, like the tongue to a sharp-edged gap, to the questions raised by those dealing with the puzzle that is Hamish, and to the ride you took into the steely chambers of his mind, before his fears well up at last and make him flesh, after all.


Penelope Todd is a Dunedin writer and reviewer. 


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