Hold My Teeth While I Teach You to Dance, by Mike Johnson (99% Press, Wakefield, 2014), 261 pp., $30
The first thing I want to say about Mike Johnson’s new novel is that I enjoyed it immensely, not least because I always like reading stories set in our own Aotearoa New Zealand cities. It’s not New York or L.A., it’s not London or Glasgow, it’s not Copenhagen or Oslo: it is our own Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. When familiarity breeds intrigue you know it is going to be an interesting ride. In many ways Hold My Teeth While I Teach You to Dance echoes and updates my own novel, Straight, written and published 30 years ago in 1985. The Māori gangs are still there, as are the socio-economic differences between Auckland’s central suburbs and those living in South Auckland.
However, in Johnson’s book the heroes and villains are Chinese, not old Nazis and neo-Nazis, and the new threat goes back onto a real ‘Mister Asia’ scenario, rather than the ‘Mister Polynesia’ of Straight. In saying this I am not in any way suggesting that Johnson was influenced by my novel or is even aware of it, and in this case Mr, Ms and Mrs Asia are far more of a threat to world stability than the self-indulgent psychopaths centred around Terry Clarke and his 1970s ‘Mister Asia’ cohorts. Johnson also, perhaps inadvertently, puts a good case for not allowing the Chinese to move in next door, in this case into Number 54 Odds Avenue.
The main character in Hold My Teeth While I Teach You to Dance is Jason Argonaut, aka Grandfather Detective, a semi-retired journalist. Throughout this tome names often have significance beyond just being someone’s title, or express a quality of the person’s character much in the way Dickens worked. For example, the classical allusion to Jason and the Argonauts who sought the Golden Fleece in Greek legend is significant later in the story. There are also many pop-culture themes, often in the form of snatches from song lyrics (a cop called Elvis adds a nice touch), as well as there being many literary and filmic references throughout. Johnson blends high-brow culture with pulp fiction and film noir with ease and to good effect.
Jason Argonaut was the journalist who won fame for writing an exposé on the grand project in China to dam the three rivers and the effect that it might have on the world’s environment, and because of that he earned the nickname ‘Scoop’. His main activity at the beginning of Hold My Teeth, however, is that of a doting grandfather who looks after his daughter’s two boys, ‘King’ Felix and Fintan, and takes care of Monckton, his somewhat moody cat companion. But his quiet lapse into suburban dotage and comfortable old age begins to unravel as he is gradually drawn into a web of international intrigue involving murder, kidnapping, and a new secret weapons system that has the power to change the nature of modern warfare to the advantage of the country that possesses it.
The first obvious sign of trouble involves someone leaving cryptic coded words and maps on Jason’s computer. He contacts his friend Velvet who, among other things, is known to be a consummate computer hacker. In the meantime the Auckland University’s computer system is completely knocked out by an unknown source. As hackers are suspected, Velvet, who works at the university, comes under suspicion. But the first of several twists to the plot is brought into being when Velvet is found murdered and Jason, who was the last to see her alive, becomes a suspect for her murder.
What follows is a roller-coaster ride that includes Jason being kidnapped and taken to somewhere in the western suburbs of Auckland, and his confrontation with the Māori gang that Velvet’s sister, Queenie, is involved with as he tries to attend Velvet’s tangi in South Auckland. His daughter Marcia has to leave for Melbourne with his grandsons, having discovered a dodgy dossier at the law firm she works for. Concurrent with these strange events there are equally bizarre and wondrous goings-on at Number 54, the Chinese neighbours’ house, which may or may not be related to Velvet’s murder.
Earlier in the story Jason has been enchanted by the beautiful voice of a young woman who sings a version of ‘All my trials Lord, soon be over’, a song that not only evokes the pure voice of Joan Baez but also brings back painful memories of his beloved wife, Anna, who died suddenly five years before and for whom he still mourns. However, ‘All my trials Lord, are just beginning’ is be a more apt description of Jason’s future predicament, in which, ironically, the young singer will play a major and potentially deadly part. Blue is her name and blue is her game, or ‘black and blue’, perhaps. Towards the end of the novel Jason is sent on a wild ride through the Pacific and South-East Asia in the company of Blue’s ‘sister’, a twelve-year-old girl, wise beyond her years, named Sparta. For his pains for protecting Sparta, when they finally arrive in Melbourne he is accused of being a paedophile and/or a drug runner. He has a lot of explaining to do to Elvis and the band of cops when he returns to Aotearoa.
Hold My Teeth While I Teach You to Dance is Mike Johnson’s ninth novel, and these, together with his six volumes of poetry, establish him as one of New Zealand’s most inventive and interesting writers. He is witty and insightful in his comments on contemporary urban living and culture, but he is never judgmental. Even the police are seen as human beings just doing a difficult job. So, it is with some regret that I note he has been let down by the proofreading in Hold My Teeth. Some of this may be the over-reliance on computer technology, where paragraphs have different length ‘white spaces’ between them; however, some are pure mistakes, such as the information on page 29 that his grandson, Felix, is 6 years old, but on page 69 he is 5. Other inconsistencies include repeated words (‘liked … liked’: p. 251), gender confusion (‘ … she would be pursued. He had to run and hide’: p. 216), and misspelling: ‘I wouldn’t’ve thought that women [woman] would even be alive at that hour’ (p. 188). But none of these errors detract from what is a very enjoyable and pertinent contemporary story.
MICHAEL O’LEARY is a novelist, poet, playwright, small press publisher and second-hand bookshop proprietor. He lives at Paekakariki on the Kapiti Coast and holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington.