The standard heading of Reid’s Reader says that there will sometimes be guest reviewers. Readers are welcome to e-mail me, or to contact me with their e-mail address via this site, if they wish to submit a review of a book new or old about which they want to inform the readers of Reid’s Reader.
This week, we present a review by a guest reviewer. IAIN SHARP, poet, librarian, literary critic and convivial person, reflects on a New Zealand novel which he thinks has been overlooked in the rush to praise other things.
Reviewed by IAIN SHARP
David Ballantyne (1924-1986) occupies a peculiar slot in New Zealand literature. He’s the country’s most vigorously championed unread author, the best publicised of our literary unknowns, our most trumpeted obscurity. His 1968 novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down has been lauded as a neglected masterpiece by local literati, including Patrick Evans, C K Stead, Kate de Goldi, Gordon McLauchlan and Hamish Clayton. Yet, in spite of such distinguished advocacy, readers at large stubbornly continue to neglect the book. Perhaps young Harry Baird, the novel’s untrustworthy narrator, is just too creepy and Ballantyne’s overall vision is just too dark and disquieting to attain wide popularity and Ballantyne is fated always to remain a writer’s writer.
Still, his is such a singular talent I cannot forbear from adding my voice to the hallelujah chorus, even if we’re singing to a smallish congregation.. Rather than simply echo the existing praise for Sydney Bridge Upside Down, however, I prefer to gesture towards the merits of one of Ballantyne’s later novels, The Talkback Man from 1978.
Bryan Reid explains in his 2004 biography After the Fireworks how Ballantyne became acquainted with Gordon Dryden in the late 1940s when both were young reporters working for the now defunct Wellington newspaper the Southern Cross. Decades later, after both had moved to Auckland, they would often meet for a drink in the Occidental Tavern in Vulcan Lane. In the early 1970s Dryden hosted a three-hour talkback show named Powerline every morning, Monday to Friday, on Radio I. Phil Rhodes, the protagonist of Ballantyne’s novel, hosts a three-hour talkback show named Stir Line every morning, Monday to Friday, on Radio Queen City. His job seems clearly based on Dryden’s, just as his favourite watering hole, the fictional Bull’s Head Tavern, seems inspired by the Occidental. But, as Reid rightly observes, Ballantyne draws more elements from his own life than from Dryden’s when sketching in Phil’s background.
Like his creator, Rhodes is a skinny, sardonic, New Zealand-born career journalist who has come back to Auckland after a stint in London. He once edited a magazine called Astonishing Aspects that gradually built into an encyclopedia for young readers, just as Ballantyne once edited a similar encyclopedia-in-parts for children called Finding Out. He shares Ballantyne’s alcoholic tendency, admiration for Irish-American author James T Farrell and choice of Ponsonby as home. What’s more, Rhodes is, like Ballantyne, a neglected novelist – the author of Driven, a book he describes, not without bitterness, as “a minor critical success – a total flop otherwise”.
At one point in The Talkback Man Rhodes cautions the most literary-minded (and perhaps the most literal-minded) of his one-night-stands, “Sorry, but you’re confusing a novel’s hero with its author, aren’t you?” We, too, should heed the warning, because Rhodes and Ballantyne are not one and the same. Ballantyne was never involved in talkback radio. He was married to the same woman from 1949 until his death and had a son and a grandson. Rhodes is divorced, shamelessly and compulsively promiscuous and apparently childless.
Yet The Talkback Man is a book that not only invites confusion between author and authorial invention but revels in it. In his London years, we discover, Rhodes led a dual life, sometimes assuming the identity of the lead character in Driven, the insalubriously named Pete Crapshott. There are moments in The Talkback Man that have a layered labyrinthine effect, luring the reader to reflect on Ballantyne-as-Rhodes-as-Crapshott.
Complicating matters still further, The Talkback Man is not Rhodes’s first appearance in Ballantyne’s fiction. He’s one of the subsidiary characters in the 1966 novel A Friend of the Family. In the earlier book we see him during his Astonishing Aspects days, already drinking too much and already fond of assuming his Crapshott persona. Even without recourse to his alias, Rhodes is a deeply divided personality, by turns jovial and teasing, melancholy and aloof, in one mood brimming with overly familiar bonhomie and, in the next, bristling with arrogant hostility.
By the time of The Talkback Man, Rhodes has developed a smooth line of patter, but we wonder – as he himself sometimes wonders – how much of his seasoned spiel he actually believes. His denigrators accuse him of snideness and insincerity. He acknowledges that some of his remarks come off sounding more sarcastic than intended – “a terrible affliction”. But what then is his intent? At one point he refers to himself as “an innocent”, which on first blush seems an extraordinary claim to come from an incorrigible sexual predator who gets a kick from cuckolding his cronies, but it’s at least half-true. His child-like egotism and hunger for applause often blind him to the bigger picture and make him vulnerable.
Although The Talkback Man is not a first-person narrative, like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, from start to finish we stay with Rhodes’s point of view. Early in the book we come to distrust his interpretation of events and to be wary of the excuses he makes for his less than noble behaviour. He does not have full confidence in himself either because he’s suffering increasingly from alcoholic blackouts. We know that on one occasion that he later cannot remember he has danced on the bar and made supercilious comments that offended Polynesian acquaintances. But we’re not sure – and neither is he – of what other crimes and misdemeanours he might be capable. There are hints that he could even be a murderer.
Throughout the novel he is pestered, while on air, by a crank caller who persists in calling him Pete rather than Phil. This caller is privy to information from Rhodes’s London past. He asks how Petula Walton, Rhodes’s pert young assistant on Astonishing Aspects and a minor character in A Friend of the Family, really met her death. Did she jump or was she pushed? Meanwhile a shadowy figure in a long gingery wig begins asking for Rhodes in Auckland pubs. Is this the crank in disguise or someone unrelated?
Rhodes comes to suspect that the caller is a disgruntled actor who is capable of producing a wide range of male and female, adult and juvenile voices. This leads to the unsettling question of how many calls to Stir Line might have been faked. Rhodes prides himself of being able to provoke good talkback. But how often have his provocative openers been met with hoax responses from the master of mimicry who is his unknown enemy? Is his old angst about insubstantiality behind adopted poses now running riot?
Ballantyne had an excellent ear for New Zealand speech rhythms. Part of the pleasure of The Talkback Man is the accuracy with which he reproduces boozy Auckland banter, circa 1978. Yet just beneath the book’s deceptively laidback, dialogue-driven, naturalistic Kiwi surface there’s an unnerving Paul Auster-like cleverness. While sounding throughout as if he’s just nattering with us over a shared jug of beer, Ballantyne gradually leads us into maelstrom of ideas about illusions and delusions, authenticity and posture, the reliance of personal identity on memory, what the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman memorably termed “the presentation of self in everyday life” and how that presentation, however skilfully contrived, should not be mistaken for the whole story.
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