Dad Art, the new novel by Damien Wilkins, is launched tonight at the writer’s festival in Wellington. Charlotte Grimshaw arrives ahead of the party to consider the book’s virtues and flaws.
Michael Stirling is on his own. He has separated from his wife, his much-loved daughter has left home and his father is in a rest home, slowly succumbing to dementia. Michael lives in an apartment complex called the Sanctum, a sinisterly plush and muted environment that enhances his sense of isolation.
In a dermatologist’s clinic, laid out on the table for an operation to remove a possible skin cancer, Michael “has no one” – no one to hold his hand or drive him home afterwards. The nurse calls him love, and he likes it.
This is Wellington, in the now. During the operation, Michael and the specialist discuss the state of the nation: child poverty, poor housing, the flag debate, Peter Jackson, and what Michael privately thinks of as “this bankrupt shitty mean blind lying bullying National government.”
As his mind wanders, he thinks about “following Bill Manhire on Twitter” then recalls a nicely pithy comment from a senior public servant, “We’ve never been ruled by a greater bunch of philistines in our entire history.”
When the operation is finished, to his surprise and mortification, Michael bursts into tears. It’s quite a meltdown: “He sobbed and gulped like a baby. Tears were on his shoes.” Here he is then, the hero of Damien Wilkins’s new novel Dad Art, with his loneliness and his uninhibited weeping and his vulnerability: a middle-aged man in emotional crisis, separated from everything he’s loved, longing to be touched.
He’s a likeable guy. He calls a spade a spade. A decent, good-hearted chap, obviously not all that smooth, the kind who’s commonly called “hapless.” He looks at the country and sees a lot that’s wrong, from the irritating to the seriously unjust.
Like most people, he doesn’t seek to alter his environment, he moves within it. In this, he resembles his creator. This is both an insider’s view of Wellington, and a view from the outside creatively, in that the scenery remains resolutely fixed. It’s more commentary on the actual than a rejigging of the stage set; the author is not bending Wellington to his artistic will, nor does he rope any human landmarks into service. The philistines and Bill Manhire and Peter Jackson are as backdrop to Michael’s wanderings.
Michael is an engaging character, a sensitive presence. He desperately needs company. To his joy, his daughter Sam is coming to stay. To his consternation, he discovers that Sam now comes with an attachment: she is tied to a young Maori man named Matiu – literally. This is a venture in performance art that dictates the young couple must stay bound to each other by an eight-foot rope, even at night. At the same time, they are not allowed to touch each other.
Michael is disconcerted, bored and irritated by the rope, understandably so. (When he eventually loses his temper with Sam and calls her insistence on the rope “selfish”, the reader may feel like joining in his harangue, and then some.)
So, saddled with the rope, they visit the old man in hospital and eat out in restaurants and awkwardly live together. Grappling with the rope: it just gets in the way of everything. It’s all quite comical, although it reduces the scope for detail and subtlety. Relationships between father and daughter can be fiendishly tricky, a battleground, a minefield. Throw in a rope and it’s all about the rope.
While we’re dealing with the amusing logistics of the rope (private conversation? One end of the rope wears noise-cancelling headphones. Loo visit? The rope goes under the door) we’re also starting to have the suspicion that it might be a bit symbolic. Matiu is Maori, Sam is Pakeha. They are tied together and must co-exist….
But first, Michael goes on an internet date. Here we meet Chrissie, a young widow with a kid, and a heart of gold. At least we’re hoping she has a heart of gold, for Michael’s sake. She’s from Auckland, and is rather abrasive. There’s her tendency to call people, Michael included, “dickhead.” And then there’s her brother Ricky, a drug dealer: “rangy, skinny black jeans and boots”, his “sunglasses pressed back in his stringy dyed blonde hair.”
At her rented home in Ngaio, Chrissie greets her brother thus: “Hey fuckwit”.
Brother and sister exchange pleasantries:
“Where’ve you been?”
“We went to the theatre.”
Ricky laughed and looked at Michael, uncertain. “Have you?”
“We went to Bats.”
Chrissie said, “Ricky’s from Auckland, Michael.”
Learning the lingo – that old slang phrase that refers to language and also perhaps to the vernacular: know the lingo and know the argot, the patois, of your place and time.
Dad Art is a novel about a man struggling to feel connected, to his family, to his country. Language is connection, and the lingo is crucial for accuracy, authenticity, a true sense of place.
When the shady Ricky goes on the run, Chrissie’s Auckland lingo turns fierce and just a little bit foreign as she tells Michael:
“Two patched guys came to the back door of the house Ricky was renting and gave the knock.”
And then, “Yeah, so they got heavy and he had to get outta Dodge.”
(“Giving the knock”: it has to be a lot more fierce than “knocking” – the kind of ruthless thing gang-members do to doors, before they turn on the humans and “give them the bash.”)
Gang members smell, Chrissie reports, grittily. “They just stink.”
Later, when she and Michael are taking a bath together and he reaches for her, she pushes his hand away, telling him, “The label on that says, does not work underwater.”
Full credit to Michael at this point, I say. He is a civilized and tolerant man. No matter what clangers Chrissie comes out with, he is accepting. He gently perseveres.
He perseveres with them all: with his daughter and the guy she’s roped to, with his demented father. In another worthy effort to connect, he keeps up his classes in te reo with sassy Maori teacher, Kerry.
The lingo problems multiply, as do the subtleties. Why is he there? Is it white guilt?
“Tena koutou katoa,” said Michael to the group. “Man, how do you say sorry?”
“Good question bro,” said Kerry. “How do you say sorry for a hundred and seventy-five years of injustice?”
The te reo class is a comedy of its own, as the entertaining Kerry struggles to deal with her students’ ineptitude. She fondly berates, she makes jokes, she strums a guitar. Michael fronts up awkwardly, does his best. Conversations veer around motive and intent; one class member gives a mind-numbing take on Maori-Pakeha relations, involving phrases like “Classic post-colonial bind, right.” Others have little idea why they’re there.
It’s possible to wonder why Maori characters must be framed so carefully, so self-consciously loaded with “awareness of issues”. The issues are important, but good narrative requires something more. The Maori characters in Dad Art – including those of Matiu and his gruff but golden-hearted Auntie Rewa – have just a faint conscientiousness in the rendering that interferes with authenticity.
This is as much a general comment, perhaps, as a specific complaint. One just keeps wanting more New Zealand writers, both Maori and Pakeha, to put pure observation first: to portray Maori as human beings, as unpredictable, subtle, mysterious and diverse in personality as all humans are.
Wilkins is very good at creating a sense of vulnerability. He’s a keen observer of human behaviour. The novel is interspersed with flashbacks, mostly Michael’s childhood memories. A vivid description of a weird phase in which the schoolboy Michael breaks into his friend’s house is genuinely uncomfortable to read, as is the portrayal of the violent bullying of a schoolmate.
In Michael Stirling, Wilkins gives us a rational man making his cautious way, his sensibility assailed by data, by white noise. Comedy, pathos and violence swirl around him. As he and Chrissie tour the war exhibition at Te Papa, Michael winces, appalled. “How had a bunch of film nerds, model makers and war-gamers managed to co-opt the national story?”
He regrets that “the airport was a holding pen for various crappy-looking franchised Tolkien beasts”, and winds up his Te Papa visit with this satisfyingly harsh reflection: “They had an orgy of necrophilia to walk slowly around. They had the scrupulously researched bad taste of adult boys to solemnise.”
You can’t help but want the best for Wilkins’s Michael Stirling. The reasonable man, grossed out by the kitsch of Peter Jackson (our Lord of the Philistines) embarrassed by Tolkien-mania, driven up the wall by his daughter’s rope, already mourning his father, tentatively trying to learn te reo. He needs a shoulder to cry on. He needs a break. Of most concern though, it has to be said, is his relationship with Chrissie.
The alarming Chrissie. Put it this way: I’m just not convinced that savage little Aucklander is good enough for him.
Dad Art (Victoria University Press, $30) by Damien Wilkins is available at Unity Books.