Bird North and Other Stories, by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press 2011) 191 pp., $35.00.
A quick squizz at a good deal of the latest New Zealand poetry and fiction releases reveals a deeply dismal trend in bland, uninspiring book covers in sedate and muted shades of beige, white or grey. Utterly unappealing, they tragically look like bereavement handbooks.
Northland writer Breton Dukes’ debut Birth North and Other Stories however, shakes off this fusty image, opting instead to slyly beckon the reader with a striking cartoony illustration courtesy of Dylan Horrocks. I initially thought the cover was an odd choice — perhaps a touch too lighthearted for what people keep banging on about as being stories which are concerned with pushing a masculine ‘Man Alone’ angle. But when I say this, I don’t mean in the John Mulgan or Bill Pearson tradition. After reading Dukes’ stories, the cover makes perfect sense. This book looks and reads like a collection for young adults. These are gateway stories — that is, the characters only just allude to having any shred of insight.
This is a plain, no-frills collection of seventeen stories. Dukes’ bongtastic characters drink from beer-filled V bottles, attend dull seminars to apply for call-centre jobs, work in hospitals, spy on their flatmates having sex, and chiefly struggle to relate to the people around them — and themselves.
It’s terrific that while these stories are set in recognisable locations across New Zealand such as Te Anau, the Coromandel, Johnsonville, the East Coast and Dunedin, Dukes isn’t that fixated on landscape and location. It appears that he is more interested in character. Particularly how men relate to each other and to their environment. I get the impression that Dukes is sticking to the safe confines of writing about what he knows, having worked in Government call-centres and hospitals himself. The only trouble is that his characters aren’t strong enough to pull the stories along.
However, Pontoon, a story about an art student who attends a two-day seminar to test his suitability for a position working the phones at the Emergency Services’ 111 call-centre is a terrific piece. Dukes dryly captures the pathos of employment workshops. From the man who brings his own pens (and who no doubt lines them up in front of him on the desk in an orderly fashion), a woman named Shona (for some reason, there is always a ‘Shona’ at these things, isn’t there?), to the ‘nicotine slaves’ who dash outside for a furtive tea-break puff, and a territorial soldier — the characters here are spot on. However, Pontoon ends on a baffling and woolly note about a pod of dolphins. Here, Dukes should have refrained from trying to be deep.
I know these characters are supposed to be laconic and ‘masculine’ but I don’t think Dukes gives his cast enough credit. I think that in many cases, it is stoic and quiet men who have some of the keenest insights. In these stories, any insight the characters have (whether that be internally or externally demonstrated) is entirely surface level. There’s nothing really there. I wanted these people to have a bit more oomph. More bite in the characters could have elevated these stories to a knowing greatness. Instead, the characters mostly come across as mealy-mouthed, shiftless, shaggy-brained slackers. And you just know there must be a lot more going on with them if only we could scratch below that grimy surface. On the whole, these are polite stories.
With its distinct chiaroscuro atmosphere, Racquet is a neat, moody and clear-sighted story. I loved the depressingly helpless, awkward and domestic set up.
Standout stunner for me though, is The Moon, a gentle down-the-line story which shows Dukes is not afraid of the quiet moments. Here, he shows us how the child informs what the adult becomes:
“Peter was five when his father said to him, ‘Your mum’s gone to the moon. She has some special work to do. I don’t know when she’ll be back.’”
Which Peter later counters with:
“People can’t live on the moon. Mrs Thompson told us.”
The scene is vivid, Dukes sets it up evocatively. There is: ‘a bottle of tomato sauce upside down on the table. A fly was crawling over the dried sauce around its neck.”’
Using minutiae and delicate observation, Dukes creates a story which is at once tender and sweet but also hopeless and melancholy. Don’t get me wrong, Dukes doesn’t romanticise Peter’s situation — Peter turns into a bit of a deadbeat. This is tangible stuff — we all know people like this. Dukes just offers us an insight into or angle on how people turn out the way they do. The scene where Peter sees his father leaning on a fence ‘just before Ashburton’ sent a chill through me.
It is stories like The Moon which hint that Dukes must have some greatness in him. I’d like to see him dig a bit deeper, get stuck into what is beyond the superficial surface, think a bit more about his characterisation and perhaps try his hand at some long form fiction.
KIRAN DASS is a Wellington-based writer who has written about music, film and books for the NZ Listener, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Pavement, Real Groove, Rip it Up, New Zealand Musician, NZ Herald, Dominion Post and Staple.