Playing at home, John McCrystal

Pearly Gates: A Novel
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $38.00, ISBN 9780143773153

“Pride goeth before a fall”, so the proverb runs, “and an haughty spirit before destruction”. The prideful one in Owen Marshall’s latest novel is Pat Gates, universally known as “Pearly”. He’s happily married, with two grown-up children, one of whom has made a notable success of her life. He’s a former representative rugby player – he had a few seasons for Otago and might well have gone on to higher honours still, had injury not intervened. He’s co-proprietor of a moderately successful real estate agency. And he’s mayor of a medium-sized provincial town that closely resembles Marshall’s home town of Timaru, on his second term when we meet him and looking quite likely to be re-elected for a third. His private interests dovetail comfortably with his public ambitions: his public profile is good for business, and his prosperity in business is a drawcard for voters. “You’re doing all right, Pearly”, as he says in one of his regular conversations with himself.

But there are warning signs, in the first third of the novel, that he is ripe for coming a cropper. There are a number of subtle references to the precariousness of happiness in middle age – “life’s free fall”, as it is put. Egged on by her best friend Alison, Pearly’s wife, Helen, is looking to return to nursing to find some stimulation outside marriage. And Pearly himself is at an age, 64, when the confluence of past disappointments and a growing sense of the emptiness of the years ahead threatens to deflect his moral compass. He finds himself often ruing the knee injury that cut his footy career short and wondering how far he might have gone. He is not at all bitter, but he’s not totally reconciled, either, to the fact that the family farm went to his brother, Richie. And he regrets that his own son has shown no interest in following in his footsteps – shown no aptitude for sport, has no acumen in business and none, apparently, in personal relationships, either – whereas Richie’s boy, Matt, will follow him onto the farm. Reminders of mortality are about, with a friend dying of cancer. Perhaps worst of all, Pearly is visited by dreams in which he is young again, fit and athletic, the object of his own and others’ admiration.

All of these subtle influences coax the needle to wobble. Showing an attractive divorcée around a house, he impulsively hugs her as the deal is closed, and his embrace is perhaps a little too enthusiastic, a little too indicative of his subconscious awareness of the possibilities. She takes #metoo exception. As the local body elections loom, Pearly finds himself facing serious competition for the first time as his deputy decides to run against him, campaigning on the perceived need to soften the economic-progress-at-all-environmental-costs approach that has characterised the Gates mayoralty. He rapidly gains traction, and Pearly is worried – worried enough that, when he stumbles across a piece of information that he can use to exert pressure upon his rival to withdraw, he barely hesitates. 

Marshall has distinguished himself playing away – that is, writing well outside his comfort zone – on several occasions. He has set previous novels in the past, in a dystopian parallel near-future, even in Auckland. But here, he is playing at home, and he is notably far more self-assured. Medium-sized provincial New Zealand is evoked in photorealistic detail, both the place and its people. Those familiar with his work will easily recognise the fluent conviction in passages such as:

The trip to his home was a well-known trail, as indeed were almost all the streets of the town. Houses that he’d sold, or failed to sell, homes in which he’d been a dinner party guest, places that were overlaid with the memories of more than fifty years. The tuck shop opposite the high school that had sold pies with yellow pastry and given money back for fizz bottles. The chestnut tree close by where he used to wait, fooling, with his mates, for the school bus that took him home to the farm. There was still the two-storeyed wooden house in Eggles Street where a woman murdered her drunken husband with a garden spade, and the dairy that used to be a barber’s shop run by McCallister who won the MC in the war. He’d been the honorary president of the Old Boys’ Rugby Club, and Pearly had gone to his funeral years ago with other members as a sign of respect.

There are other Marshall trademarks on display as well. There are the names: the ordinary, the extraordinary (the almost Dickensian Gwendolyn Posswillow, for example) and even an appearance by a member of the ubiquitous Ransumeen clan. The story is written in his characteristic cool, dry, aphoristic prose (“Pearly had prayed for that: a prayer addressed not to a conventional god, but that amorphous identity that throws the dice in life, is appealed to in crisis and forgotten in all other situations.”) There is humour, in the form of gentle satire (immediately after committing a dastardly act in the name of reviving his re-election prospects, Pearly signs up for a conference entitled “The Moral Imperative in Leadership”). And, of course, there is the psychological precision which has made Marshall one of this country’s finest writers both of short and long fiction. 

Pearly Gates stands or falls on its characterisation, as although all the elements of a classical tragedy are present (a tragically flawed hero, karmic come-uppance in the offing and even a Greek chorus, of a kind, in the shape of an anonymous caller who regularly phones Pearly to assure him in emphatic invective that he’s going to get it), this is a character-driven novel. The work of bringing Pearly alive is masterfully done. Marshall tells his story from his customary eye-of-god point of view: we get to know Pearly not only from the privileged window we have into his own thoughts, but also by observing the little ways in which the other characters react to him. In a meeting with the local MP and the council CEO, Pearly offers to reminisce about the times he played rugby against Fijian opponents: the way they politely discourage him tells us volumes about his proclivity for such self-centred reminiscence, perhaps even casual racism. Similarly, Pearly’s marriage to Helen is beautifully depicted, with all the areas where ground is given, where one boosts the other or ballasts their ambitions, the way in which life partners lean upon one another, or strain gently away. 

Perhaps the deftest touch of all is the way in which, nearly 100 pages in, a gentle dissonance opens between the narrative point of view, which has thitherto been one of benign approval of Pearly and his doings, and the reader’s own reaction to Pearly’s clumsy advance on Charlotte, his client. It is a subtle, but unmistakeable clue, and not only are you, the reader, placed on your guard – not even god is a reliable narrator – but you are also reminded that none of this control of narrative technique is as easy as it looks.

It is the attendance of an old boy of Pearly’s former high school at its 125th anniversary that precipitates the moral climax of the novel. Andrew Nisse was dux in the year that Pearly was head boy: he barely featured on Pearly’s radar, as the only sport he played (badminton) was beneath Pearly’s dignity. But Andrew has gone on to achieve international renown in economics and has been knighted. The speech he delivers in reply to Pearly’s own throws Pearly’s life into perspective for him: it is cosmopolitan, challenging and focused on the future, whereas Pearly’s is parochial, complacent and full of self-satisfied reminiscence. By now, we know Pearly. We know his good points – he is generous, and not without empathy. But we also know his bad points. He tends to be vain, ambitious and therefore determined to cut a dash. We’ve seen how these failings can trip him up. The burning question is whether he can see these things in himself and for what they are, and having done so, what action he will feel compelled to take. We live in a self-justificatory age, where excuses are openly carried and swiftly unholstered whenever blame is aimed our way. It is one of the ironies of our times that self-absorption seldom runs to moral self-awareness. Well, then. Pearly Gates might just be an example to us all. 

John McCrystal is a Wellington-based writer.

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