Now When It Rains by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Steele Roberts, 2018), 286 pp., $34.99
I sometimes wonder about the viability of literary memoir. Why people write them seems obvious enough – there comes a time in the lives of some of us when our pasts demand to be examined – but why anyone should read them is more problematic. Three reasons come to mind. First, a fascination with a writer’s work might lead readers to seek exegetical insight from the circumstances of the life. Second, the mystique that surrounds the business of writing might result in a search for inspiration and illumination of the creative process. Third, we might assume that because writers can express themselves they will provide incisive psychological observations of a more general kind even when working with biographical material that, in other hands, might be unutterably dull. All these expectations might be satisfied by a good literary biography but, with a memoir, they would seem to set up an inevitable mismatch with the writer’s intention. The creation of any work moves from a state of potential to one of the actual, a process that is inevitably one of limitation. The result is always a version of what might have been written. In most genres this scarcely matters but with memoir there might seem to be an unresolvable paradox. If my aim is to realise certain things about myself, how can I be satisfied with a mere version? And if I am not engaged in realisation, what am I about? Looking for affirmation or attention? Trying to manage my public image? Providing an object lesson? Indulging myself?
Perhaps all this is overthinking it, at least from the reader’s perspective. Maybe all we are really looking for is a good story. Jeffrey Paparoa Holman provides one. His theme is the process of becoming a writer against odds that are largely self-inflicted and are more limiting because they are only partially realised. His antagonist is his father, Bill, a hard-drinking sailor whose seventeen-year career in the British and New Zealand navies encompassed both World War II and the Korean War and ended in disgrace when he fiddled the mess fund to pay off a gambling debt. Holman’s relationship with this powerful, violent, war-damaged figure has been a major preoccupation in his writing, inspiring both his poetry collection As Big as a Father (2002) and a memoir, The Lost Pilot (2013). Now When It Rains demonstrates how the PTSD of one generation gets visited upon the next. Bill bequeathed to his son a furious sense of injustice that manifested in an almost reflexive resistance to authority and a self-destructive refusal to participate in anything beyond the narrow forms of life of the working class. All this was reinforced by a lurking sense of personal inadequacy. Such a legacy was not uncommon in the post-war generation and no doubt contributed to the sixties phenomenon of dropping out. It may also have helped fuel the rise of the drug culture: if you don’t fit, either by choice, chance or ability, you may as well write yourself off.
Holman’s story provides a good example. He did well at school and drew special inspiration from his English teacher – poet and conservationist Peter Hooper. However, friction with the system led to him leaving after the sixth form to work as a skiddie in a sawmill and then as a rousie in a shearing shed. A brief attempt at university failed. Instead, Holman learned to shear and embarked on a career of hard work and hard drinking that took him from the Coast to the Wairarapa and thence to Frankland in Western Australia. He returned to the West Coast in 1970, where he again met up with Hooper:
At 23 I was a dropout and damaged goods, unable to separate myself from the wounds of my parents and my own confusion. I had a head full of Bob Dylan songs and close to zero self-worth, but I knew Peter cared about me and that poetry had something I needed. (115)
Holman’s rudderless course continued: a job with the forest service, abandoned for a passionate love affair and a return to Christchurch and university; a succession of odd jobs to support himself; drink, drugs, protest marches; his partner’s unplanned pregnancy, a marriage and then a breakdown in the relationship; abandonment of study once again; a new relationship and a return to the Coast. Now, however, poetry becomes a constant thread in the story. Peter Hooper appears again; Holman meets Baxter and is both impressed and repelled; he studies Neruda and modern English and American poets. He reads; he writes in pursuit of something he is never sure he deserves.
The story is enlivened throughout by Holman’s eye for detail, his observations of the people he meets and his frank, often-ironic appraisal of his own weaknesses. His style is clear and amiable, neither intimate nor remote – the voice of an entertaining dinner companion – and, the occasional cliché and dangler notwithstanding, an effective vehicle.
It took Holman another twenty years before his direction began to stabilise. His descent into alcoholism and marijuana abuse, exacerbated by the death of his second wife, was halted by a Damascene conversion to evangelical Christianity, complete with active proselytising and full-immersion river baptism. This led to a divine call to go to England and, like some colonial missionary in reverse, bear witness there. He took a job as manager of a home for reformed alcoholics, but despite God’s guidance this, too, failed for reasons of mental stress that are not entirely clear. Now in his forties, he returned to New Zealand leaving most of his family behind. A third attempt at university led to academic success, a discovery of Māoritanga, a fourth marriage, and publication and acclaim as a poet, a historian and a memoirist. Holman treats his success with due modesty. He sees his books:
… as a record of what can happen when we take our gifts and abilities seriously and find shelter, support, critique and succour in teachers, helpers and healers. None of this would have happened had not many kaiarahi, loving guides, appeared in my life over those years. (260)
An object lesson, then? Or an insight into the blooming of a creative talent, sown in rough soil? Interesting as the story is, I didn’t feel that it threw much light on aesthetic matters. It also exhibits a curious absence. Despite their constant presence in his life, the principal women in Holman’s tale are mere shadows. We get a portrait of his maternal grandmother, who inspired him with her stories; his mother appears as a patient, long-suffering victim of his father’s temper; but the three women he was married to (one was both his first and his third wife) are described with less colour and energy than he devotes to the clapped-out motor vehicles of his young manhood. His second wife, Lee, his ‘fiery lover’, is never so alive on the page as in the passages describing his grief after her death.
Such neglect does not come across as a thoughtless and sexist disregard. It seems rather to be the result of a deliberate decision. Was it based in diffidence or delicacy? Or to spare the feelings of friends and family members? Memoir can be a minefield of other people’s fears and resentments. Yet, if Holman’s aim is to explore the process by which he became a writer, his relationships with the women he spent his adult life with can’t be irrelevant. Even if all three were of a similar sensibility to James Joyce’s wife Nora – who, despite her pride in his achievement, thought his later work made little sense and that he ought to have been a professional singer – then their lack of literary empathy is surely significant.
One explanation for the absence of the women is that including them might have muddied the story. It would no longer have been one man’s struggle against his inner demons but something more complex. What Holman gives us then is a version, a form of public testimony, perhaps, or an example of personal myth-making; one that, despite its frank acknowledgement of the pain and confusion of its subject, fails to offer more than a partial truth. It’s an interesting tale, though.
CHRIS ELSE is a novelist, reviewer and a partner in TFS Literary Agency and Manuscript Assessment Service. He is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. A seventh novel, Waterline, is due from Quentin Wilson Publishing in 2019. Chris is the president of honour, New Zealand Society of Authors 2018–19. He currently lives in Dunedin.