Monday, September 26, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“BIRD NORTH – AND OTHER STORIES” by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, $35)

When it comes to literature, it’s important sometimes to draw a distinction between respecting a work as genuine, and actually liking the work. Worthwhile criticism isn’t just the child’s tantrum of saying “I like” and “I don’t like.” It has to recognise that something can be well-written and insightful, succeed on its own terms and properly be praised without necessarily appealing to everybody, including the critic. I’m not bound to like all the classics, for example, but I am bound to understand why they are regarded as classics and why other people commend them.

I’m carefully establishing this to begin with because I think Breton Dukes’ first collection of short stories (and first book) is the genuine article – sharp, hard and allusive stories, very skilfully written, that convey certain male mentalities. But I also found myself squirming at much of the sordid detail, actively disliking many characters for their insensitivity or dumb brutality, disliking the deadpan, hopeless tone of many of the tales, and wondering whether I really needed to know everything I was being told.

The cover blurb places Dukes in “the great tradition of New Zealand writers – Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall – who have looked at men’s lives.” The blurb also quotes Damien Wilkins (apparently one of Breton Dukes’ mentors) saying Dukes has “zeroed in on his subject and delivered an intense, necessary book.” I take “his subject” to mean the idea of masculinity, and “necessary” to mean that Wilkins believes Dukes has diagnosed accurately in his stories what is wrong with New Zealand men.

But has he?

Asking this question is part of what makes me distance myself from this book, even as I admire its literary skill.

The brief bio of Dukes suggests he is still a young man. One of his stories (Other People’s Houses) has a woman narrator. But protagonists of the seventeen stories of Bird North and Other Stories are mainly young men – of student or first-employment age, usually hanging out with other young men, sometimes shacked up with women, but not really being committed to women and certainly not interested in settled domesticity. There’s a story about an unhappy honeymoon (Three Bikes), another about a dysfunctional marriage (Racquet) and one where a guy breaks up with his girlfriend and goes to live with his married brother who has a pregnant wife (Soup). When this is noted, however, it remains true that all the significant psychological and physical events in these stories are man-to-man.

The collection begins and ends in what could be called traditional Kiwi macho settings. The opening tale Shark’s Tooth Rock has two young men out on a diving-fishing expedition. The closing tale Thinking About Stopping  has a bunch of jokers pig-hunting in the bush. But this is not the blokey world of a Barry Crump anecdote. As much as anything, in its tragic and literally chilling outcome, Shark’s Tooth Rock  is about the limits of male bonding and boastfulness, and the defeat of kiwi machismo. The protagonist of Thinking About Stopping is more concerned with where he’ll get his next drug fix than with outdoorsy activities. It’s like a collision of  A Good Keen Man and the Slacker.

For whatever reason, the old male paradise of New Zealand mateship is poisoned. Dukes has chosen the second story in the collection, Bird North, for his book’s title, so presumably it’s meant to highlight this theme of Paradise Stuffed. In Bird North there are again activities traditionally associated with healthy outdoors living (tramping and running) but again undermined by a piece of new-style nastiness  - the sexual violation of a younger man by an older man.

I won’t list all the stories and their contents, but they do include unhappy young men failing to connect with their fathers, or worrying about whether the girl they picked up on holiday is going to go off with another guy, or hanging out hopelessly in cheap motels and grotty student flats, or wondering where they’re going to score their next drugs, or thinking about sex, or having sex in a disconnected, uncertain way, or failing to decide whether they can move on from the dead-end jobs they’re in.

One or two stories come close to deadpan reportage. Orderly is a slice-of-life of the miserable, harassed experience of a male orderly in a hospital. Johnsonville is like a 6-page sociological report on the typical activities of a bunch of boozing, TV-watching, time-filling womanless blokes. But Breton Dukes is not essentially an “I-am-a-camera” man who just looks and reports. These stories are crafted and shaped.
Often, a closing paragraph or two is added to a story. At first it seems to have nothing to do with the story itself, but closer reading shows it has some sort of symbolic value. This technique is most blatant in the story Pontoon. A young man who loves swimming is thwarted by a boring job at a call-centre. The final paragraph has a pod of dolphins stranding and drowning. The reader can easily make the symbolic connection. Elsewhere, however, the technique is more opaque, and in typical explain-nothing Postmodern fashion, the reader has to work harder to connect the dots.

I think I have described this book accurately. Sometimes, I was tempted to moralise and ask such questions as :- Is the story The Moon saying that bad parenting will lead to a life without commitment? But I don’t think moral questions or social improvement are really Breton Dukes’ intention. He wants to convey vividly how some young men think, feel and act. If his brief bio is any guide, he seems to be drawing (at least in part) on life experience. His stories dump a lot of behavioural problems in our lap, but it’s up to us to draw conclusions or moralise.

To return to my original misgiving – is this an accurate diagnosis of New Zealand men?

I don’t doubt that Dukes has caught accurately certain types of young Kiwi men. But, asking “Where are their brains? Where are their loves?”, part of me is glad that I don’t know many of those young men.         

Semi-relevant footnote: Dylan Horrocks is a very good artist and his image of a sweating runner (illustrating the title story) graces the cover of this book. But I’m not sure it was the appropriate choice as a cover. It’s too cheerfully cartoonic. I was halfway through reading Bird North when one of my kids asked “Is that a children’s book you’re reading?” Nope. It isn’t.  


  1. There are 9 inaccuracies in this review:

    1. The title of the story is not 'Other People's Houses'. It is People's homes.

    2. In the story Three bikes, there is no suggestion the protagonist is on his honeymoon - only the suggestion that following their wedding he and his wife have shifted to Oamaru.

    3.In Shark's Tooth rock the characters are spearfishing, not diving-fishing.

    4. In Thinking about stopping the protagonist never at any stage worries about getting his next drug fix - he has a bag of drugs stashed in the pot cupboard under the sink. His main concern is chasing the pig and in wondering whether he should stick it out with his girlfriend.

    5.None of the stories feature a character who picks up a girl whilst on holiday.

    6. None of the stories feature a 'cheap motel'. One story, Argentina, is set at a camping ground.

    7. Neither is there mention of a 'grotty student flat'.

    8. As mentioned, there is nothing about any character 'trying to score drugs.'

    9. In the story Pontoon, the main character does not work in a call centre, he is attending a two day training course to see if he would be capable of working in a call centre.

  2. Thanks for these comments, Breton. Always good to get an author's response. I apologise for misquoting the title of one of the many stories I cited. However, apart from this, your other objections are all quibbles that in no way invalidate the comments made e.g the difference between spearfishing and diving-fishing is technical and so are the other comments you make.(How different is a guy stressing about the stash of drug he's carrying from a guy who wants to score some drugs? Same sort of guy).

  3. Hi there,

    I think there is probably a pretty big difference between those two men!

    But my point was that the stories are not about drug addicts, or cheap motels, or grotty student flats. I've tried hard to avoid those sort of cliches.

    Anyway, I appreciate the review. Hopefully a few more people will take a look.


  4. Once again, thanks Breton, and I really meant what I said about appreciating an author's comments. Part of the purpose of leaving the blog open for comment is so that you can slap me on the wrist if I deserve it. My basic idea was I like your writing but I hate these characters. Of course that could be a tribute to how clearly you've presented them. Mind if I pass on a slightly depressing thought? My comments on the blog are (as I know from long experience in reviewing) about twice as long and twice as detailed as the average newspaper review would be. So I hope I'm not guilty of superficiality even if I am of slight inaccuracy. BTW, I think I typed "Other People's Houses" because the title of Lore Segal's famous memoir of that name was in my head.