Dad Art by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press, 2016), 230 pp., $30
Dad Art is a short, easily read and quickly digested novel, set in a very recognisable contemporary Wellington. Its opening pages are full of cultural signifiers that I share with the protagonist: Game of Thrones box sets; Bill Manhire’s Twitter musings; wading page by graph-strewn page through Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century; checking out the new Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.
Michael Stirling, the middle-aged Pākehā man at the centre of this novel, is someone I could walk past on Courtenay Place, queue with to get into Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or sit with at one of those sorts of meetings where, once everyone is seated, the chair begins by saying, ‘Well, we all know why we’re here.’
Michael has quite a bit going for him. He’s got a snazzy apartment. He’s good at his job as an acoustic engineer. And though the novel opens with him having a dodgy mole removed, he’s in reasonably good health overall. But on the other hand, he’s hit that sour spot – a by-product of increased lifespans – during which he has to deal both with his daughter’s departure from the family home and his father’s fading years in a rest home. What’s more, his marriage has broken up and he is swiping right into the dating scene.
In parallel to all these developments, he is tentatively taking on the challenge of learning te reo Māori. Michael is somewhere in the middle of his class: neither the most nor the least confident and competent, a little intimidated by the personal and political sharpness of instructor Kerry.
Michael finds himself in the middle a lot during this novel: mediating between his father and the rest home, and mediating between his daughter Sam and Matiu, the boy she brings home to stay in Michael’s snazzy apartment.
The relationship between Sam and Matiu is intimate, but not romantic: rather than being tied together by the bonds of young love, they are tied together by an eight-foot-long rope, part of Matiu’s artistic practice for which Sam has decided to sign up.
Michael is less than delighted about the rope, though he comes to appreciate it – or at least tolerate it – more over the course of the novel. To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen on it when it was introduced, and didn’t change my view thereafter. The rope makes for lots of practical difficulties and complications that create low-level conflict: what happens when one of them needs to use the toilet? What happens if one of them wants to talk about the other privately? What happens when the roped-together parties try to navigate a crowded Courtenay Place on Saturday night?
But the rope also serves as ‘A metaphor’: two people – one Māori, one Pākehā – roped together willy-nilly as they navigate their way into an uncertain future. It’s a slightly more nimble version of New Zealand’s coat of arms, and because such a high symbolic weight is placed on the whole business of the rope, neither Matiu nor Sam ever fully emerged for me as believable characters.
While Sam, Matiu and that mute but weighty rope came over as instruments of the book’s plot and its themes, other secondary characters are vividly drawn. Michael’s ex-wife Vanessa is a powerfully felt presence, off-screen for most of the novel, save for one scene where they meet up in Auckland: I liked the way in which Michael, though still hurt by the way their relationship ended, is able to see Vanessa as her own person.
During the novel Michael starts dating Chrissie. With her spiky personality, boisterous son and dodgy brother, I thought she might prove to be the source of more drama than Michael can handle. But this isn’t a novel whose plot turns on bad things happening abruptly to good people or even bad people; and Chrissie and Michael’s relationship, as it develops, looks like becoming a source of strength for both of them.
Wellington is no city for retirement villages, with its property prices rising as sheer as its hills, but they dot the Hutt Valley and the Kapiti Coast. Michael’s dad Derek is a resident of one such facility, invented but typical: Parkhaven in Waikanae, where Derek is descending the steps of rest-home care. Derek has a bung hip and early-stage dementia, but flashes of his old self still shine through, making the long grey stretches in between those flashes all the more painful for Michael.
When Michael’s guilt, pain and fear over his father come into contact with Sam’s and Matiu’s obliviousness, conflict emerges: but although there is what could technically be called a climactic moment of violence towards the end of the novel, it’s played as much for laughs as for catharsis. Rather than coming to the boil, the novel bubbles away, with good and bad, happy and sad taking turns to rise briefly to the surface of the plot.
In an interview with the Victoria University Press blog, Damien Wilkins said that he worked much more quickly than usual when writing Dad Art; the one rule he set himself was that the action of the book should be commensurate with the time in which he was writing it: the same days, the same news cycle, the same weather.
That makes sense, because the book moves lightly through its territory: in fact, with its short time period, small number of main characters and limited number of settings, it felt to me more like a long novella than a novel. That’s no criticism on my part: I enjoy novellas, and perhaps writing at this length and at that pace freed the author from the seriousness that I, at least, was primed to expect from his work.
The looseness of Dad Art means that the breaks from the narrative to delve into Michael’s thoughts on various subjects don’t feel annoying or self-indulgent, as they might in a more tightly structured novel. Here’s Michael at Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition, sounding off (in internal monologue) on New Zealand’s national insect:
It seemed Weta had free licence to brand and disfigure Wellington’s public places. It was all he could do to duck his head whenever he had to cross under the ghastly stalked creature outside the Embassy Theatre. The airport was a holding pen for various crappy-looking franchised Tolkien beasts. (p. 151)
There may not be many benefits of aging, but one of them is the social licence it provides for such dyspepsia. Other than his left-wing political leanings, Michael is showing all the early signs of a promising second career as a Stuff comment troll.
But Michael is capable of more than impotent indignation. He’s capable of tenderness with his father, with his daughter (for all their disagreements), with his new lover Chrissie, and even with his ex-wife Vanessa. Michael may be approaching the age at which the best opportunity to catch up with one’s friends is at other friends’ funerals, but he still retains curiosity about the world and a desire to engage with it. I liked Michael, and because I liked Michael, I enjoyed Dad Art.
TIM JONES has published several volumes of short stories, a novel and several volumes of poetry. He is a writer, editor, web content manager, anthologist, husband, father, political activist, and lover of cricket, music and many other fine things. His latest collection of poems, New Sea Land (Mākaro Press), will be published in August 2016.