White City by David Lyndon Brown (Titus Books, 2017), 208 pp., $32
I well-remember David Brown from my high school days. He was one of the small number of tyro students at then recently opened Aorere College in Mangere, South Auckland, and two years ahead of me. We – the third formers – were rather in awe of the name David Brown, the promising young artist, as we respectfully sighted his painted pieces on the back wall of Ms Rankin’s art room, and we often mentioned his name as a sort of genuflection toward the ideal of the Aesthetic – or Art, at least. Garnering a reputation as a champion New Zealand roller skater at the age of 14 with three national titles, he had the air and look of gilded youth. Later he went on to Elam Art School and in the 1970s became part of inner-city Auckland’s bohemian set. In the 1980s he gradually established a reputation as an writer of exquisitely crafted short stories and poems.
I will say straight away that I admire this collection of 11 interrelated short stories. They are well written, crisp, compact, clever, candid – courageous, even. Much of this writing is the result of Brown’s time as the holder of the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship in 2012, and Albert Park’s environs feature strongly. White City is characterised by Brown’s expressionist chiaroscuro, where urban atmospheres are shot through with lurid hues and sudden daubs of description, and characters emerge vividly into view out of the shadows. It constitutes a kaleidoscopic panorama of eccentricity, of queerness, of marginalised survival in a city’s maw. Indeed, this collection of short stories is, in effect, a novel, a mise-en-scene of tangential and oblique fragments impressively assembled. White City resembles a French New Wave movie transcribed into print, or else a connect-the-dots exercise for the discerning reader, whereby each tale is an integral portion of the final portrait. It is a small masterpiece.
The interrelatedness of the tales is central to the overall ambience. Brown has managed to imbue each and every story with a memory, a hint, a nod to another story – most particularly via some of his interestingly varied protagonists, who recur here and there glancingly, almost under the radar. These cameos are interpolated as vitally important to the sum total of the mix.
For example, Mr Krishna, the East Indian widower accidentally reeled into a relationship with Larry Swan, the dyspeptic alcoholic South African in the first tale, enters the fray once more in the next story, the titular ‘White City’. This tale delivers the stand-out rigmarole of central city street folk quick-talking among themselves as a kind of rhythmic pulse, the heartbeat of the narrative. Here, we sight massage parlour junkies (such as Melissa, who then pops up some stories later in Mama San’s ‘Nice Lady Bar’), a twitchy drug dealer (Nimrod, who spasms into the scheme of things elsewhere also), garden bar gays, drag queens, and a confused Mr White – stoned and somewhat less than immaculate. This eponymous anti-hero is cleaned up by Mr Krishna after White pukes out, as it were, the details or circumstances of his pharmaceutical life up until then. Names have a Dickensian symbolism, evoking character and much else. White, of course, refers to illicit drugs – heroin, cocaine – as well as suggesting the character’s centrality to events. And it also remind us of the author’s own name.
Melissa and Mr White were formerly a couple; they once hitchhiked up the Coromandel and thereby became fleeting memories for Martin Glass the painter and praiser of naked men in the story ‘Portents’, where he stays at Bob the poet’s abode. Glass also encounters Mr Krishna at the airport in ‘Perhaps the God of Time Passing’; later, Martin Glass has a self-reflective semi-novelette all to himself as he cruises through Samoa and on to Pondicherry, India – which is where Mr Krishna is from. Of course. This is the final lengthy sequence in the collection, entitled ‘To the I Land’.
No David Brown collection is complete without a bad boy – or two. Here, a taut dyed-white-haired youth projecting an aura of violence prowls almost subliminally through several episodes. He thrashes Larry Swan in the Albert Park public toilets in ‘You’re the One that I Want’. He sweeps past George’s dominating mother in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, in the exact same scene as the one above, but from another perspective. Mr Krishna is also there as ‘some old Indian drinking tea out of a thermos flask’. Moreover, this nasty, crack-cocaine-wielding youth, whose name is Jacob, overdoses dramatically in ‘Heart of Africa’.
You get the drift? Martin Glass is the gay gardener in ‘Rivers of Babylon’ who helps the refugee Mrs Al-Azawi, whose son is getting his chemical thrills from Nimrod. Frank, aka Miss Demeanour (check the drag-cabaret pun), recurs throughout the sagas of Jojo in the going-glam ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ and of Henry James, another evolving drag queen, in ‘The Transfiguration of Henry James’. So it goes.
‘Normal’ – that is heterosexual, law-abiding, middle-class people – are in the minority throughout the collection; they are marginalised. We are in the company of the normally occluded, as opposed to the always included. Brown’s people are a community or clique so-called ‘normal’ folk don’t mix with, and don’t really want to be around, unless – of course – they want a ‘blow job’ or some such no-holds-barred sexual buzz from ‘characters that are not firmly connected to the mainstream grid’, as the back cover blurb puts it.
There are several non-Pākehā actors here; again, they are individuals without a key to unlock the grid. They include: Krishna with his penchant for dropping Shakespearean quotations into conversations; Mrs Al-Azawi dealing her social worker named Jane, who is deliberately holding up an application for the sister to enter New Zealand; Sigmund the ape, who also relays to us his historical journey towards demise. Others, such as Melissa, retail their rebellious decline into self-destructive decadence stories too. These people, in David Lyndon Brown’s revelations, weren’t born to fit the conformist carapace that smothers so much of New Zealand.
One soliloquy, replete with flashbacks that surely must mirror the author’s, has an older Martin Glass stating:
Martin is formulating a plan. During the frequent jaunts he made to the Pacific with Udo, they discovered that it was always the next island that they preferred … These islands were less westernized, there were fewer tourists, the pace was slower … it makes perfect sense to make the journey to the Other Island.
Story settings, besides being sited around the central city nexus that is Albert Park and its aged toilet block, are often ghetto-like locales – now perhaps legendary – such as the once-infamous Rising Sun hotel on K. Road, or an earlier Ponsonby Road before gentrification, or a broken-down haunt euphemistically called the Waldorf Astoria. The seedy urban thrall – most especially after dark – is well captured throughout:
I sniff the air. The night is waiting for me. The city is popping with electricity, music’s pumping out of the clubs and the night smells sweet with all the perfumes of all the women out on the town, food frying, a breeze coming up from the harbour. And there’s another smell – I can’t quite put my finger on it – something like – anticipation, maybe …
This relish for submerged and subversive scents, reminding me of Celine, bits of Bukowski and Burroughs, with a smatter of Welsh and definitely Larry Kramer, permeates the entire collection.
Frequent musical references contribute richly to the carnivalesque tone, too. Diva favourites such as ‘Saint Maria and Dame Kiri, Cilla and Dusty, Britney and Whitney’ share the air with the hip-hop rage of rapper Tupac and with Frank Sinatra’s blithe ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, while the BeeGee’s disco classic ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – used in the title of the first story – also parties on. Sotto-voce mention of gay icons – David Bowie, Elton John and, of course, Princess Diana – add a certain nostalgia.
More than this period detail, and significantly so, David Brown is a fine writer per se. Much of his imagery is quirkily magnificent: ‘he wished Bob and Clare to arrive unexpectedly and disinfect the house with conversation’. He is also a precious word merchant, in the sense that he includes vocabulary not of the everyday – yet natural in such gender-stalking, androgynous writing: it’s calculatedly arch, causing you to refocus. Thus, we encounter and grapple with sesquipedalion rarieties, such as apothegm, glaucous, maculated, intaglio, pantechnicon.
And Brown conjures from his characters’ confessions some superb admissions. For example, Martin has an ‘almost irrational distaste for anything American’. As he spies two of his detested Americans swimming in the hotel pool, he literally and figuratively links the scene to himself, chiding: ‘That’s you. That’s what you look like – the wattles, the sagging tits, the paunch. The rickety architecture. The faulty plumbing. The Spanish moss.’
Despite this decrepitude, Glass does manage to haul himself into a near-epiphany, a kind of beatnik satori, as he sits under the dusk sun of Pondicherry after many reminiscences. Like the ‘hero’ of the movie The Visitor, steadily playing on repeat in his Samoan hotel room earlier on, Martin has learned to live, to survive, to thrive. ‘I’m here,’ Martin whispers … ‘I made it. I’m O.K. I’m here.’
Buy this book. Read this book. Appreciate this book. Regardless of your existential persuasions, it serves to show us all, once and for all, that the late David Lyndon Brown was a great and distinctive New Zealand writer, and those words, ‘I’m here … I made it’, are fitting echoes of his accomplishment.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is currently based in the Waikato where he works as an educator. His poetry collection Atonement was nominated for a National Book Award in the Philippines in 2016. He also won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize in 2016. He has a PhD in existential philosophy from Auckland University.