Kerry Donovan Brown
Victoria University Press
Maria Susanna Cummins’s sentimental novel The Lamplighter (1854) was a bestseller in its time. It tells the story of a mistreated orphan, Gertrude, who’s rescued by Trueman Flint, a lamplighter. Flint instills good virtues in his ward, and Gerty grows into a good Christian woman.
Kerry Donovan Brown’s Lamplighter (note the absent indefinite article), whether consciously or not, turns Cummins’s novel on its head. Candle, the novel’s 18-year-old protagonist, is apprenticed to his lamplighting grandfather, Ignis Gullstrand. Rather than lead his charge into morality, Ignis is foul-mouthed, violent and alcoholic. Candle is quiet, gentle. He labours to disentangle paddle crabs from his father’s net and return them to the water uninjured; Ignis simply tears a crab from the net. “‘Bait,’ says the Lamplighter, and tosses the remains into the ocean.”
And, crucially, Candle has “awoken as a homo-sexual”, as his grandmother puts it, while the Lamplighter is steadfastly homophobic.
Candle finds refuge with his grandfather’s former apprentice, Rib, who despises the old man. He is set further adrift by the fact that Lamplighter’s mantle is being dissolved. The gas lamps will be replaced with electric lights. Candle will never graduate from apprentice to master. The latent conflict between grandfather and grandson is set up as one of the novel’s chief tensions. To come of age in this bildungsroman involves breaking family ties rather than forging them, challenging the old ways instead of falling into line.
The villagers for the most part forgive, or overlook, the Lamplighter’s coarseness. He’s been Lamplighter since 1943 “and has lit lamps along the swampbrink for close to a half-century thereafter” (meaning the novel is set circa 1990). His lamps have protected people and livestock from the dark, and the terrors it might hold. “Might” being the operative word. Candle has grown up with his grandfather’s stories about the doggod (a wolf-like creature that can mimic human voices) and Wet Pete (the resurrected and malevolent corpse of a bushman), and spends much of the book trying to figure out how much is myth and bulldust.
Monsters aside, Porbeagle’s an odd place. People say “Avaunt” and use “Hail” as a greeting. We first meet the village head, Emerald Tapuwai, sitting naked on a crate in the middle of the De Vol’s lounge, surrounded by villagers and their easels. Life drawing is big in Porbeagle, apparently. Candle is there too, working on mammary studies. (To him, Tapuwai’s breasts look “like cakes taken out of the oven too early”). But just where is Porbeagle? The book’s blurb calls it a “tiny South Island settlement”, and in interviews Donovan Brown has mentioned the setting is inspired by his hometown of Waikuku Beach. But the text itself is more cagey: New Zealand is never mentioned, nor any familiar place names. Instead, Candle visits his grandmother in a town called Anchorite, and people suggest he moves to the big smoke of Hellgrammite and the Inner Islands. The reader must recognise the country through the presence of native flora and fauna and references to tangata whenua. About the volcano known as Broken Tooth, the Lamplighter tells his apprentice: “The native name is lost, but the Māoris once held it sacred.”
Brown is clearly interested in names. People and places bear names from nature, often with an aquatic aspect. Porbeagle is a species of mackerel shark. Hellgrammite is a carnivorous aquatic insect larva. Candle’s mother, Sylla, echoes Scylla, the water monster from Greek myth, and scilla, a genus of perennial herbs. One of Sylla’s sisters is Undine, a water elemental in alchemy.
Much of Lamplighter’s pleasure lies in triangulating time and place, distinguishing myth from reality and decoding hidden meanings. It is relentlessly, if quietly, inventive. The kind of book that improves on second and third readings. There’s an interesting essay, for instance, begging to be written about the novel’s attitude toward the domestication of animals and its impact upon the land. Aquarium fish start nibbling each other’s fins. Cows are “cross-eyed”, while a hare “ambles fearlessly across the pasture in plain sight”.
The narrative, however, often feels secondary to the set dressing. Candle is partly to blame for the novel’s sluggish feel. Things happen to him, as if he were a small boy. He lets his mother blow-dry his hair. A woman offers to paint his face at the fair (he chooses the design called “Deepest Desire”) and later lets Rib wipe it off with a dampened tea-towel. He encounters a council waywarden taking measurements for the installation of the electric lights, is shown a gay porno mag (without provocation, though Candle later wonders if his walk is “giving him away”) and given a pouch of powder. Candle asks if it’s sherbet. He takes it anyway.
It doesn’t help that his grandfather starts out unlikeable and only becomes more so. He’s compared to a shark, he calls his daughter a “fucking bitch”, Candle a “faggot”, and beats his wife. His only redeeming feature is the service he’s performed for Porbeagle as Lamplighter – a service no longer required. “The lamplights aren’t any help,” Candle decides at one point, “they illuminate the border of the wetland, but blind the eyes against the deeper, darker parts.” There’s little reason for Candle to feel conflicted when breaking with his grandfather, and this undercuts much of the weight his liaisons with Rib and ultimate disavowal of the Lamplighter’s ways could have carried.
The detached third person narrator’s present tense prose is not nimble enough to overcome Candle’s passivity and drive the narrative forward. The combination of chapter headings (invariably where the scene will take place: “The Swampbrink”, “The Fairgrounds”, “The Aquarium”) and first sentences that serve no other purpose than to orientate the reader (“It’s not quite day yet”; “Candle is walking home from Rib’s”) tends to deaden interest rather than entice. Many chapters begin with an orphan paragraph devoted to describing a room or a section of creek. The descriptions are well written at the micro-level (ibis at the fairground “squabble over cheeseburger wrappers and muddied clots of candyfloss”), but the absence of characters or action means the reader often feels forestalled.
When Candle visits his grandmother in Anchorite in the novel’s final quarter, she gets out the family Bible that is “thicker than a stack of phonebooks”:
Through the pages Granna has filed an array of documents, some significant, some of questionable significance. Newspaper birth announcements, wedding invitations (Candle’s parents!), a fortune from a fortune cookie: “no answer is also an answer”, a table of runes, and an orphaned tarot card, The Hermit.
Lamplighter is a slim volume, but it shares the magpie feel of Granna’s family Bible. Into the narrative of Candle’s coming of age, Brown has inserted late 1980s nostalgia (“pickles and pineapple skewered on toothpicks”, eight-bit video games), a menagerie of closely observed birds and bugs, tracts of cryptozoology, mythology, quirky names (Seabright Durivage, Kemp Tibald), trinkets, talismen and items made by hand (even Candle’s family home was built by his father). From the family Bible Granna pulls a newspaper article that draws together the novel’s two strands: the Lamplighter’s homophobia and his tales of monsters beyond the swampbrink. It’s a satisfying thematic union but, because Candle doesn’t initiate this discovery, it feels unearned.
It is easy to see why an early draft of Lamplighter earned the 2012 Adam Prize, awarded to the best manuscript produced by that year’s MA in Creative Writing students at the IIML. Brown manages to synthesise his interests into a unique and convincing world, while dealing with big issues in interesting ways. Those looking to be led along by a story, however, may come away disappointed.
Craig Cliff is the author of the novel The Mannequin Makers (2013) and the short story collection A Man Melting (2010).