Fred Dagg meets Henry David Thoreau, Nicholas Reid

Moonshine Eggs
Russell Haley
Titus Press, $34.00,
ISBN 9781877441578

If a novelist calls his main character Rejekt, he can rationalise the name as part of his character’s Czech gypsy heritage. But obviously the late Russell Haley, in this posthumously published novel, wouldn’t be dealing with Harry Rejekt, if Harry wasn’t a reject from wider society. A solitary. A guy living on his own and not quite getting the hang of connecting with other people.

As Murray Edmond reminds us in his handy introduction, Moonshine Eggs is the third book Haley devoted to Harry Rejekt, following on from A Spider Web Season (2000) and Tomorrow Tastes Better (2001). Harry lives in a decaying shack somewhere in the South Waikato between Cambridge and Tirau. He subsists. He is an organic farmer and tries hard to be a vegetarian, but meat is so tempting and yummy that he often forgets. 

There’s the thinnest wisp of a conventional plot. With egregious lack of success, Harry attempts to woo Shelly Nairne. Later, he has problems in accommodating an amiable Japanese backpacker. Beyond these loose plotlines, Moonshine Eggs is a series of anecdotes or self-contained short stories, just as the two earlier Harry Rejekt books were. Harry tries to win Shelly by painting a cardboard biscuit box and filling it with love tokens. Harry does some DIY on his shack’s munted guttering, with slapstick results. Harry finds himself having to interact with giggly teenage girls at a party he doesn’t want to be at. Harry gets pissed with an old gypsy mate. And his old bomb of a car has the habit of going to the wrong destinations.

In one sense, Moonshine Eggs belongs to the rich Kiwi tradition of comedy based on bumbling, mis-adventuring rural jokers. Me and Gus, Barry Crump, Fred Dagg, Footrot Flats. Come to think of it, Harry’s dozy attempts to connect with Shelly remind me of Wal Footrot’s gauche courting of Cheeky Hobson. Harry’s faithful dog Sako is a border collie, just like Wal Footrot’s Dog. 

But the Harry Rejekt books are as much ironic commentary on the iconic rural Kiwi joker as they are imitation. After all, bumbling Harry is a real soul-searcher, a self-analyst, and a lover of poetry (especially Romantic poetry), who is partly attracted to Shelly because her name is a homophone for Shelley. How many ordinary Kiwi blokes would think of a line from Keats while trying to demolish a borer-ridden wardrobe? How many would look at black swans on Lake Karapiro and get a flashback to Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole”, not to mention Sappho and Dylan Thomas? There are many overt literary jokes in Moonshine Eggs. Harry sometimes works in an antique (ie junk) shop for a guy called Bartleby. There’s a snobby woman who comes in looking for a first edition of Katherine Mansfield.

Beyond the literary jokes, though, there’s that fact that Moonshine Eggs is written with a poetic sensibility, reminding us that Haley was a poet before he turned to prose. As Edmond’s introduction indicates, Harry Rejekt (HR) is in some sense the alter ego of Russell Haley (RH). Only a poet could write the detailed, sensuous description of the mould and crud clinging to Harry’s filthy shower-curtain. Only an amateur philosopher could make so many of Harry’s thoughts turn on a human being’s relationship with other animal species, or the intimidating vastness of the universe. Fred Dagg meets Henry David Thoreau, mate.

I should point out that Harry is in his 50s and (as I’m sure Haley intended) a certain element of old fartdom clings to him. He makes offhanded cultural references that millennials don’t get. The work-experience teenager at the travel agent’s doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he mentions the movie Casablanca. This hardening-artery stuff doesn’t worry me in the least, because I share some of Harry’s prejudices. I warm to a character who, in the opening pages, mentally corrects somebody for saying “different than” instead of the correct “different from”. I like somebody whose radio is permanently tuned to either National or Concert, and who hates rap music and the squawk of commercial radio.

But there’s an odd tone of melancholy to the book’s daggy jokes, romanticism and literary allusions. Deep down, Harry understands he’s an anachronism. When he remembers collecting, as a kid, giveaway plastic toys out of old Weetbix packets, he knows a younger generation would have no experience of such things. His simple masculine yearnings are set in a New Zealand that is basically monocultural (apart from visiting gypsies and the nice Japanese backpacker). Harry’s mindset is very local. He’s never been outside New Zealand and he dreams of overseas travel we know he will never take. His New Zealand is frozen somewhere in the 1960s. Do I hear here the dying gasp of the old hippie, alternative-lifestyle ethos, but with the full understanding that it is a dying gasp?

Solemn, old, over-analysing me! Moonshine Eggs is mainly a fun book, delivering a lot of genuine laughs. Unfair to ask more of it really.

Dr Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet and critic who runs the book blog Reid’s Reader.

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