Aspiring by Damian Wilkins (Massey University Press, 2020), 200 pp., $22
During the winter school holidays I was with my infant son at the main playground in Alexandra. Fresh snow made a duvet on the Hawkduns as trucks, Wanaka and Queenstown bound, rolled by. Teens scrimmaged under the pines. One boy—short pastel shorts, a T-shirt, a tea-cosy-type woollen hat—broke to leap onto a picnic table.
‘Hey kids,’ he shouted, aiming his face at the playground, ‘we’re leaving!’
People looked, but nobody moved except a teenage girl who got up behind him and snatched his hat. He laughed like the Count on Sesame Street and jumped off. Who was he? Was he leading some sort of holiday programme? Wasn’t he freezing?
Envy I felt. And outrage—how dare his sense of fun disturb the serious task of killing time with my child. Plus, should I give him my jacket? Of course I thought of Ricky, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Damien Wilkins’ new novel, set up the road from Alexandra in Wanaka (renamed Aspiring, but with its scenery and scene, unmistakable).
Teenagers. You are or were one. Frothing over with hormones and anxiety, with trying to fit in and trying to make sense of parents/siblings/teachers. With how to make your way, how to make your mark.
Talking about mark-making, in 2009 Wilkins taught me on the IIML’s MA programme. A course by which I demarcate my life, because my brain has never been the same since. That year I, like your average teenager, was on the cusp of something big. Literature rather than life. Huge questions bubbled. What is fiction? How does one do it? Could I? Answering those questions was glorious. Religious really. And Wilkins made quite the steward. So of course, I couldn’t hold him in higher regard. As a teacher, human and writer.
That year he published Somebody Loves Us All. Then Dad Art. More recently Lifting. Brilliant, intense, quietly zany novels with middling protagonists straining to make sense of their place in the world (their world being metropolitan Wellington). Featuring his story-within-a-story specialty. Featuring his casts of marvellous secondary characters. Written in his unmistakable language—masterly word choice, masterly word ordering, that combination of beauty and clumsiness only the best writers deliver. Always full of ‘heart’—something he’s criticised my work for lacking at different times. Heart being kindness towards your characters, kindness between characters, humour, lightness, decency.
But is Aspiring an exhibition of these same strengths? And—wait up—isn’t it YA? Professor Wilkins doing YA? Max Gate was the last time I felt nervous for him. A fictionalised account of Thomas Hardy’s final days told by his housekeeper. I’d been reading Far from the Madding Crowd and emailed Wilkins asking his opinion, but he hadn’t read it. Hadn’t read it? But you’ve written a book about Hardy! Of course, I needn’t have worried. Fiction after all is freedom. For me, Max Gate is one of New Zealand’s best novels. Quiet and measured while at the same time thrillingly risky. High entertainment indeed.
But back to Ricky. He’s tall, 6ft 7in and still growing. His high-school basketball team is gearing up for a big game, and there’s an intriguing new girl in town. There’s the dudes from Albert Town heavying one of his mates, there’s the impending anniversary of his brother’s death and the associated escalation of his parents’ yearly arguments. There’s Le Clair, the mysterious knife-nosed guy in the Cadillac who bets on Ricky’s height, predicts the future, and may not be of this world. There’s Aspiring’s (menacing) beauty, there’s climate change, there’s the human library project Ricky’s doing …
A lot to fit into 200 pages. Mishandle all that and you’ve got a bad case of bloat. But Wilkins wields his needles with great skill, knitting his story lines in with precision, delivering a book that powers along while simultaneously taking time for quiet scenes of delicious poignancy. Like at the end, when Ricky and his folks go outside to throw a softball. Like when Ricky’s aunt turns up at the family home after some good news and sings. Really sings. Stunted into emotional silence by his gender, personality and dead son, Ricky’s mechanic dad is so struck by the beauty of it he bolts from the room.
I’m a dad. To three very young boys. Life is tumultuous and mundane and hard. But not for my boys. For them it’s a blur. Daycare, school, play-dates, toilet-training, GP visits, cups of Milo. It is massive and incomprehensible. To them I am God, whereas at forty-six—balding, sleep-deprived—I am more than aware that I am not God. Life for me is this small carefully measured thing. Days into weeks, months, and then, just like that, another year. Life, its future, is known. A warrant for the car. A new story. Paying the power bill. Surprises, revelations, magic—all are in short supply. But as a teenager you’re in the middle of all that. Emerging from the mystery of childhood, entering the certainty of adulthood. Of course the body is growing and changing, but so is the brain and its imagination, its urges and needs, its comprehension. It’s fabulous. It’s awful. Wings out, standing on that high branch—what a place to set a story.
But, as much as the story is about all that turmoil, Wilkins also makes Ricky reckon with a changing world. More on that later though.
Aspiring is told solely from Ricky’s point of view. Wilkins told me that’s part of what makes it YA fiction. An adult novel would have spent time in Ricky’s parents’ point of view. The effect would be an ironic gap between what Ricky knows of the world and what we, the readers, would know. So maybe we’d have understood why his dad was so moved by his sister-in-law’s singing. But phooey to that. Ricky is such a likeable narrator, he’s so believable and convincing, I’m more than happy just to see his dad moved. It hits me harder because there is no careful explanation.
But there’s more to the book’s point of view than just that one strand. Wrongly or not, I read two other strands. There’s what Ricky calls his internal commentary:
Biking home this: He squinted against the cigar smoke. Smokescreen, he thought. But smoke… smoke, as his Auntie Rena once sang in nightclubs around the world … gets in your eyes. Your eyes water. Then what? Maybe a drop of moisture sliding over your eyeball magnifies the world and you start to see things. (p. 16)
This stuff pops up sporadically: Ricky seeing, and dramatising what he sees. It’s troubling to him, but a pleasure to read, adding texture to the reading experience. And this may be a stretch, but I read it as the creative part of Ricky’s brain coming to life. The writing part of his brain. It’s how I, as a writer, see the world. Not all the time, just occasionally, when something out of the ordinary happens: it’s like different lenses drop down over your eyes and suddenly what you are seeing is fiction, not reality
The third strand comes up a lot and speaks to what I wrote earlier about the changing world or, perhaps more accurately, Ricky’s perception of the world.
A good example comes at the end of chapter six: ‘I started to jog towards town, towards the dark ruffled and knowing lake’ (p. 62).
That dark and knowing lake. It’s threatening and, with climate change, shrinking. Bodies are buried there.
Two summers ago a medical student from Otago tried to cross over to Jade Island on an inflatable flamingo. He captained a pink drinks tray right to the invisible bottom. (p. 22)
And the mountains—they loom over Ricky. They hem Ricky in. They are the gin traps holding Ricky by the ankle. But Ricky—Ricky is growing, maybe he can outgrow them, maybe if he gets tall enough he’ll be able to see a way out …
Anyway, it’s a subtle shift in the narration. Maybe it suggests a slightly older version of Ricky, or perhaps it’s a slightly more mature narrator at play—not that it’s overcooked at all. It’s quiet, like everything in this book. It’s the rats in the wall of a beautiful house, it’s that Lynchian idea of the horror just beneath the surface of daily life.
Which gets me into tone or style. Aspiring is not realism. It’s more playful than that, more exaggerated. Large characters, major events, huge emotions. No, I needn’t have worried. Aspiring is thunderously good—poignant, kind, funny and packed with story.
What questions could I ask of Wilkins? Maybe I’d have hung in with the basketball game—stayed until the end, been there for the key moment—but Wilkins hasn’t written a book about sports. It’s much bigger than sport, and anyway, he’s got a story to tell. And the sex scenes? I’d have gone for a more awkward interaction, but isn’t awkward teenage sex a cliché? What’s wrong with everything working in the correct order, with issues of timing being no issue at all?
Aspiring then. Full of fun, dressed inappropriately and leaping lightly from the highest branch. Forget YA—this is a book for all of us.
BRETON DUKES is the author of What Sort of Man (2020) and two previous collections of short stories, Bird North (2011) and Empty Bones (2014). He received the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary in 2011. Breton lives with his wife and three young children in Dunedin. His interests include cookery and swimming.