“The frequent flyer friar” John McCrystal

Nailing Down The Saint
Craig Cliff
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143773740

Those familiar with Craig Cliff’s work will know that he is fond of a kooky premise – a starting-off point that allows him to tread the blurred line between mundane realism and the surreal. Many of the stories in his debut collection, A Man Melting, caught the eye precisely because of the imaginative, offbeat conceit at their heart; his first novel, The Mannequin Makers, asked us to imagine a man so consumed by professional rivalry that he is prepared to sequester his own children away from the world and raise them for the sole purpose of masquerading as mannequins in a department store window.

Whereas The Mannequin Makers was a so-called “historical novel” – Cliff himself prefers the way the Italian term, romanzi storici, puts the fiction first – set 100 years ago and, if not based upon, then at least rubbing shoulders with historical events – his second, Nailing Down The Saint, is contemporary. It’s set in Hollywood and various Italian locations and very much in the now. But it’s haunted by the past and, in particular, by the historical figure of Saint Joseph of Cupertino (San Giuseppe da Copertino), a Catholic priest who lived in the first half of the 17th century and who drew the attention of church authorities with his unusual and troubling habit of floating around the room.

Duncan Blake is a young-ish Kiwi movie director who finds himself stranded in Hollywood amongst the wreckage of his dreams of making it big. He began dabbling in movie-making when, as an adolescent, he discovered the power of porn, and honed his cinematographic skills on voyeurism and his editing chops on compiling a “wankbank” of “jackable moments” recorded from television onto VHS. But the skills proved transferable. His first feature film, a dark little number about ecotourism set in the Catlins, was moderately well-received, and achieved notoriety when a real eco-terrorist group, Second Wave, co-opted it to serve their own purposes, prompting both Hollywood and the CIA to sit up and take notice. Duncan was hired by a big studio, Echo Park, to direct a sci-fi flick named Fury’s Reach, only to be dumped a matter of days into the shoot without any explanation forthcoming. Since then, he has settled for earning a crust as a middle manager in a tacky, franchised Italian restaurant and doing his best as the devoted husband of Kari and doting dad of Zeb, who, closing on three, is showing signs of withdrawing from the world. The Spectrum is never mentioned, but is strongly suspected, both by Duncan and by the reader.

We learn all of this about Duncan within the first 60 pages of the novel. In his short but stellar career, Cliff has shown himself to be a master of finely judged under-explanation: in Nailing Down The Saint, you sense his impatience to set the scene and get on with the story.

Meanwhile, Duncan is visited from time to time with a recurring dream that he is able to fly, and is using this gift to search from room to empty room of a dark mansion. Most of us have experienced dreams of flight: they’re considered to have either sexual or existential significance, or perhaps both. Freud had no difficulty in identifying dream-flight with orgasm, whereas the slightly calmer, modern explanation is that they are a means by which the subconscious draws our attention to an area of our lives in which we feel powerless. Setting us free of gravity itself draws a stark psychological contrast between the dream-state in which we are in complete control, and the reality of our lives, in which control is lacking.

Duncan doesn’t make that connection, even though he is surrounded by co-workers who (this being Hollywood) all wait tables while seething with cinematic ambitions of their own, and who are incensed that Duncan, who once soared into the rarefied air of big budgets and A-list casts, has set his wings aside and is content to plod.

Everything changes when one of these co-workers confronts Duncan and urges him to introduce himself to a big-name director who frequents the restaurant. It’s not as though Duncan hasn’t thought of this himself: he has, in fact, been preparing by studying Frank Motta and his showreel for around four hours a day every day for the last two years.

The break duly comes. Motta asks Duncan if he will help him with his passion project, the biopic of San Giuseppe da Copertino that Motta has been talking about for decades. Motta asks him to travel to Italy to scout locations, so that when the movie is eventually made in Mexico, it will look and “feel” like Italy. Duncan accepts and, without thinking too hard about it, he proceeds to ask a friend to accompany him. Felicity MacKinnon was a high-school buddy, and Duncan has kept in touch. She’s gone from being a nerdy recluse to a celebrity “shoutcaster” – as e-Games commentators are known – and has been something of a soulmate and confidante of Duncan’s down the years. With his wife’s permission, if not exactly her blessing, Duncan prepares to join Mack for a roadie through Italy.

San Giuseppe was born in 1603, a sickly child. He was initially pronounced ineducable, but found a place with the Franciscans as a stablehand. Before long, his simplicity commended itself to them as piety and he was ordained a priest in 1628. He soon gained a reputation for the extraordinary. Not only was he prone to levitate, but he was also credited with being capable of the “scrutiny of hearts” (mind reading), bilocation (being in two places at once) and of performing miraculous cures. The principal of his order saw the evangelical merit in all of this, and took him on a tour of Italy. When his burgeoning popularity reached the ears of the Vatican, Giuseppe was ordered to appear before the Inquisition. As a matter of record, he was exonerated of the charges of being a charlatan and harbouring messianic ambitions, but he was ordered to be kept out of the public eye. This didn’t stop him becoming a cause célèbre amongst European nobility, and there are many accounts of his tendency to yelp suddenly whilst in the midst of his devotions and then to leave the ground, often achieving considerable heights and staying aloft for periods of time that defied natural explanation.

This is easily kooky enough for Cliff. History has given us San Giuseppe deadpan. How do we explain him?

It’s not Duncan’s intention to investigate the truth or otherwise about the frequent flyer friar, but he soon finds himself pondering the possibility that levitation is a thing. Mack is less sceptical. Duncan has confided to her his flying dreams (withholding the fact that he actually experiences the physical aftermath of sore muscles when he wakes, as though he has been breast-stroking through the air, along with a sense of certainty that he has flown before). Mack tells him that she is pretty certain that one of his flying dreams coincided with a moment where she came into the room to find him hovering several feet off the bed in their AirBnB. It’s Mack’s idea that they make a detour from the itinerary Motta has supplied to look into an organisation whose members fervently believe that by letting some light into the locked-up regions of our potential, gravity is just one of the things that we can overcome.

Duncan is queasy about the road trip as a genre (and perhaps, by extension, so is Cliff):

The too-neat overlay of physical and spiritual journeys. All that screen-time devoted to angles wide and low: to tyre tread, road tar, cactus and canyon to make the pro-forma English essay point that we human beings are small and short-lived. Whoop-de-shit.

For all that, a road trip is what two-thirds of Nailing Down The Saint becomes. As they make their way, far from trouble-free, through a travelogue of Italian locales, Duncan and Mack are embarked on other journeys. Duncan is obliged to explore the nature and basis of his relationship with Mack, with his wife Kari and with his faraway (in several senses) son. He comes to see cinema in a new light and to question his own motivations and career situation. He must ask himself the question: how badly do I want to fly again? And perhaps – this is far from clear, as the author merely puts it out there, as they say, deadpan – he approaches a spiritual realisation. As he zeroes in on the end of his quest, Duncan acquires stigmata through mysterious agency. It doesn’t seem to provoke any questions in him, but what, we wonder, is Craig Cliff saying to us?

This is an ambitious novel. Cliff clearly intends to keep it light, but while it is funny throughout, it lacks some of the exuberance of his earlier work. Perhaps this is because he is seeking to speak hard truths in jest: certainly, he is intending to leave us wondering, as there are few tidy resolutions on offer – no saints actually get nailed down in the making of this book. And he is such a clever writer of prose that there are many points at which you feel the urge to nudge someone next to you, to point, and to exclaim: did you see that? Did you?

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.

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