I Got His Blood on Me
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
Who has whose blood on him? The narrator of the title story I Got His Blood on Me is smeared with the blood of an injured man he has picked up on the motorway near Wellington. The man may or may not be a time-travelling Pakeha-Maori who has somehow butted into the present from the early 19th century. There’s much fruitful ambiguity about this. The narrator is an imaginative chap who used to have an imaginary pet dog, so he may be misinterpreting the whole situation. It’s also clear that the story can function symbolically. It could be a metaphor for changed male-female relations in the past two centuries, where the Pakeha-Maori and his wahine contrast with the narrator and his partner. Or it could be a commentary on the shallow roots of modern urban development.
But readers are not patronised or bamboozled in the postmodernist manner. “I Got His Blood on Me” reads perfectly well as a literal account of literal time-travel, and the prose is admirably uncluttered if you want to read it that way. Interpretation and ambiguity do not overwhelm the clarity of the premise. To put it another way, it has the virtues of a damned good yarn as much as of a sophisticated and finished work of literature. This first (and longest) of the 12 stories in this debut collection sounds a theme that Lawrence Patchett often revisits – the continuity of New Zealand’s past in New Zealand’s present. The collection is subtitled “Frontier Tales” but the frontier is as much our consciousness of the past as it is the raw state of an earlier New Zealand. Three times, Patchett’s titles include the word “blood”, emphasising that we are kin to our forebears.
One story, “The Snack Machine”, stands aside from Patchett’s typical concerns. It’s a strong contemporary realist take on the awkwardness of being a step-parent. Otherwise, the past preoccupies Patchett. He has the great virtue of knowing that foreign country well, and making it vivid for us in a plethora of specific details that are introduced unobtrusively. Much research evidently lies behind these tales, whether they are sketching Dick Seddon’s gold-mining days (the Kiplingesquely titled “The Man Who Would Be King”), recreating an “endurance swimming” competition in 1931 (“The Man Beside the Pool”) or – with book-ended and pitch-perfect pastiches of Zane Grey’s formula Westerns – using Zane Grey’s 1920s fishing expeditions in the Bay of islands as commentary on the Kiwi contempt for “skiting” (“The Knight of the Range”).
As a matter of personal taste, I wasn’t so keen on a couple of stories that introduce a sort of supernatural element. A narrator of “All Our Friends and Ghosts” is visited by the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves, and in “Claim of Blood” a modern man confronts the editor Oliver Duff back in the 1930s. Both strike me as a little arch and whimsical in the manner of Lord Dunsany. On the other hand, the fantasy has a very hard edge indeed in Patchett’s “alternative” version of early sealing days in New Zealand, “My Brother’s Blood”. A vegetarian cult opposed to seal-slaying may sound like the stuff of whimsy, but the tone is decidedly sinister and the action blood-stained.
In a way, all this is prologue to mentioning the collection’s three strongest stories: “The Pathway”, “A Hesitant Man” and ‘The Road to Tokomairiro”. All three begin with a traumatic physical event in old New Zealand (a drowning, a shipwreck, a fatal coaching accident). All three render this event with great clarity. But, without losing narrative momentum, all three switch focus to the psychological impact of the event. They become studies of guilt, conscience and that deep desire for some sort of forgiveness after mistakes have been made. At the risk of overstating this book’s merits, I’d compare Patchett’s technique here to that of a writer very much of an era that so interests Patchett ‒ Stephen Crane. Extreme physical event moving into close examination of a psychological state reminds me not only of the mental agonies of Crane’s fleeing soldier-boy in The Red Badge of Courage, but the trauma of Crane’s sea-tragedy short-story “The Open Boat”. Patchett does not suffer by this comparison. I Got His Blood on Me is a very accomplished debut.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland critic, historian and poet, whose first collection of poems, The Little Enemy, was published in 2011.