What Sort of Man by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, 2020), 239pp., $30
Eight of the nine stories in Breton Dukes’ new collection ‘confront’ their readers with the frank demand of a title that could easily slip to an aggressive question: ‘What sort of man?’ You cannot help but think of Primo Levi’s similar question with his memoir, If This is a Man, or Sarah Helm’s history of Ravensbrück camp, If This is a Woman. It is not a title that is meant mildly to intrigue you. You know you are about to be challenged in various ways. You are going to be as far from Frank Sargeson’s coded male world, or Barry Crump’s blokish romps, or admirable mature behaviour, as New Zealand writing has so far gone. For the most part, these stories are rough, brutal, mean as pigshit, yet written with an artistic finesse that is, in itself, a celebration. Dukes’ fictional world, at first so starkly black and white, breaks down to just how complex that simplicity may be when attended to so finely. He takes us into the intricacies of male competitiveness, its rare promptings to what elsewhere might be taken for tenderness, the ineptness of a certain kind of man to draw much from the women he relates to, or to absorb the errors of his past. A world with few winners, with multiple losers.
An immediate aspect of these stories, especially of the brilliant ‘Meat Pack’, or the hilariously pathetic ‘What Sort of Man’, that draws me back so admiringly, is the writer’s alertness to one body’s engagement with another—whether in affection or brutality, embarrassment or distress—as something you take most seriously when it is also tracing out a mind’s darkest or most devious moments. Dukes is masterly on occasions of great awkwardness. There are few writers who come to mind who can make you feel how sinister and muddled an event may be, or very soon is going to be, and hold you as well by how wittily and crassly it unfolds. The story of three boys on the verge of adulthood joins dozens of New Zealand short stories about adolescence, about the enmity at the core of sport, about the fear as much as the enticement of growing up, with sex in its devious rustlings on the verge of almost everything. But there is something so definitively Dukes’ own in ‘Stone vs Cog and Rabbits’ that makes it unlikely to be confused with any other.
Dukes’ young men, like his older characters, are desperate to break free from what may simply be bad luck, but is more likely to be the deeper sense of a loser realising how he is perceived, how nothing much is likely to change for the better. There’s what you might call a narrative certainty in how this is presented. There is nothing like a conventionally mild optimism, or even a thin veneer of sympathy, in the telling of these stories. It is one of the aspects that so defines them. You want to know what it is like to experience a general sense of failure, to do the rounds of Dunedin streets and parks hoping to give the young child you are looking after rather more than the low esteem you have of yourself? Well, here you are. Can a child make up for the feebleness, the errors, that once defined you? Can marriage, can doing your damnedest to be a good parent, erase what once made you what you still fear you are, after all? As Dukes will tell you, ‘Not likely.’
With the clamour of so many competing social loyalties on a contemporary writer, or the frequent insistence that he has obligations to hold useful political opinions, actually to talk about art, or the aesthetic concerns of fiction, or how he quietly assesses the technique of what he does, is likely to be thought an indulgence. Yet it is difficult to avoid doing so with a writer like Dukes. The compassion in his kind of story is not in adjectives or tone or in making allowances, but in the directness of how the story is told. It is the writer’s respect for the style itself, which refuses to be bought off. The description of a table, or of a barking dog, may be of more moral significance than a stated authorial regret that such or such an event occurs. There was a phrase used of William Trevor’s splendid stories, that he was unblinking about life’s ‘unswervable unpleasantnesses’. I’d lift that for Breton Dukes with equal respect.
I easily imagine that some people will dislike these stories. Yet curiously, this may be for the same reason that others hold them in such regard. An insistent fact can do the same as an attitude in a different kind of narrative. And all the more powerfully so, when such a fact compels us to see its metaphoric force. There’s a fine instance of this at the end of ‘Malcolm’, when something becomes a metaphor yet stays so insistently itself, and the well-meaning young father retains the weaknesses he will never put right. His past is also the stream that the child’s lost blanket blocks.
There is another aspect to Dukes’ sparing use of simile that so deftly marks the way his stories may be told. Those of us who read contemporary New Zealand poetry may be struck at times by a belief—it is much deeper than a fashion—that a simile whirling away for its own sake, as random as a tossed-in firework in the middle of a party, is what exciting poetry gets up to: relevance blasted away in fizz for its own sake. Dukes’ prose does something very different indeed, something a writer needs a sharp eye to bring off. That is to find a likeness that is deliberately low key: metaphor as a function far more than as display. So while a story like ‘Bullfighter’ can take an image and inflate it to a hammering narrative resonance, it can also cut a comparison down to size, to a banal yet exactly appropriate commonplace, as in ‘Like a compass needle, it doesn’t matter how she moves; most of her ends up pointed at the pub.’ Nothing flashy there, but dead right.
Everything in the telling of these nine stories is after that kind of accuracy. But it would be limiting to think, as a few reviewers have done, that Dukes’ cosmos, to label it that, was primarily a stamping ground of awkward and disillusioned males. You are only going to place particular varieties of those, if women too find their place in their relationships. One way or another, most of the men in these stories cannot ‘take the pressure’, that oversimplified term we so casually use of minds and lives that are not necessarily on the verge of collapse but something rather worse—there is nothing for it but to go on, through the particular repetitive cycles defining the Dunedin most of these figures are confined to and unlikely to break free from.
‘Meat Pack’ is the story that, for me, most profoundly demands an answer to the implicit question the collection’s title asks. Its accuracy, its stylistic care, the minds that are read through hard physical contact, the network of lines that may or may not be crossed—it’s a parade of fuckwits and try-hards, as those outside the stories might well describe them, but ‘us’, as the author compels us to concede.
It is just on sixty years since Maurice Shadbolt published his first short stories as The New Zealanders. (I’ve always assumed he had The Dubliners somewhere there in the back of his mind.) Patrick White, for one, was greatly taken with them. They have lost much of their appeal across the years, but I doubt that any group of New Zealand stories before then were quite so ambitious in their claim to speak for a country. Dukes’ stories are better written, and far more astute in their probing at the personalities some of us may be. I don’t believe he grandly shoulders Shadbolt’s claim to put an entire people on display. He makes no bid to show more than the limited and deeply maimed people his Dunedin reveals to us. But these are finely focused stories, done with the confidence of a writer who knows precisely what he wants to show, and how to show it. Their telling, and their method of telling, is confidently his own.
VINCENT O’SULLIVAN’s Selected Short Stories was published in 2019 and his novel All This by Chance in 2018 (both Victoria University Press). He lives in Dunedin.