King Rich, by Joe Bennett (Harper-Collins/Fourth Estate, 2015), 290 pp., $36.99
According to a publisher’s flyer, a mate in a pub told Joe Bennett that, after Christchurch’s big shake in 2011, thermal imaging detected somebody living in a condemned luxury hotel in the central city’s red zone. ‘Who could such a person possibly be?’ thought Bennett, and the idea for his first novel King Rich developed from there.
The guy hiding in the condemned hotel is Richard Hugh Jones, referred to throughout as Rich, aged about 60, sick and derelict. Even given the city’s confusion after the earthquake, why has nobody missed him? Because the wife he divorced over twenty years earlier lives in Blenheim, she has had no contact with him since the divorce, and she isn’t in the least interested in him. And because his sole daughter Annie lives in faraway London and hasn’t seen her father since she was a small child. But once she hears about the earthquake, Annie feels it’s her duty to come back to Christchurch and catch up with the old man. The trouble is, nobody knows where he is. All the people she contacts lost touch with Rich years previously.
So here’s shaggy Rich subsisting, undetected, in the big abandoned hotel that is scheduled for demolition (my non-Christchurch mind at once conjures up TV images of the Hotel Grand Chancellor, which I think was Bennett’s intention). And there’s his daughter Annie, teamed up with her nursing mate Jess, doggedly searching for him, piecing together his life and all the things she has never known about him. The chapters concerning Rich are written in the immediate present tense. The chapters concerning Annie are written in the narrative past tense.
This sort of set-up could develop in a number of ways: eccentric adventure, documentary or family psychodrama. Bennett tries for all three.
Of course, Rich’s experience is eccentric adventure. Dodging police and soldiers and the prying eyes of helicopters in the red zone are part of it. But so is that daydream we’ve all had of raiding with impunity the alcohol cabinets of a big hotel, wallowing in its beds and luxury suites and enjoying, for free, things that only big money can usually buy. When Rich adopts an abandoned dog, which becomes his devoted companion, he names it Friday. Just in case you don’t get the allusion, we are considerately told late in the piece that Rich used to enjoy having Robinson Crusoe read to him. This is man-alone adventure, predicated on the man-alone’s ingenuity in surviving. Such adventure is tempered by the fact that Rich is virtually an alcoholic and certainly a severely sick old man with body wounds and an aching gut. The adventure is painful.
The documentary aspect is inevitable. As Annie searches, she observes such post-’quake Christchurch scenes as landscape changing ‘from workable suburban affluence to something post-apocalyptic … downed bridges, ruptured drains and shattered roads … Streets lined with bulldozed heaps of grey and sodden silt. Crudely painted notices [begging] drivers to slow down, or [urging] rubber-neckers to go elsewhere.’
Annie also encounters a cross-section of society. There is the bereft and broken old woman in a modest suburb, who was Annie’s childhood neighbour but is now helpless in a wrecked home. At the other end of the Christchurch social scale, there is the city’s moneyed aristocracy: the suave, Christ’s College-educated old toff who owns a block of flats and can call on associates in the business world to thwart Annie’s search while pretending to help her.
And what of the unfolding family psychodrama? As I have done before, I plead the case that it is unmannerly for reviewers to spike the intended surprises of newly published novels. Without providing such spoilers, I can say that from quite early in the novel, the alert reader will have a fair idea of what dire, hidden things Annie is going to discover about her dad. To be precise, there’s a big hint on page 68 of this 290-page novel. I think it is Bennett’s intention to suggest that Rich has become the derelict and outcast that he is because of the treatment given to the subgroup to which he belongs. As social commentary, this might have been mildly daring forty or so years ago. By the early twenty-first century it had become a very common theme and therefore does not now carry the surprise or shock value the author might have intended. Enough said on this aspect of the novel.
King Rich is written with brisk efficiency and holds up very well as pure yarn. The female Telemachus searching for her Ulysses makes for that sturdy ‘quest’ narrative line, tried and true since antiquity. Or could she be the reporter searching for the ‘Rosebud’ of Kane? Joe Bennett garnishes it with suspense elements. What’s going to happen to Rich when the hotel gets demolished? Will Annie or won’t Annie marry the boyfriend she left in England, who proposed to her on her last night in London?
But the potholes in this well-constructed road knock us about a bit too.
Annie, the observer who has not seen Christchurch for years, becomes our eyes as she discovers the effects of the earthquake and makes judgments on the city and its people. Fair enough. But Annie’s voice is often indistinguishable from the novelist’s. When Annie meets her bereft childhood neighbour we are told:
How many more Mrs Yeats were there in the city, Annie wondered, as the bus to Hornby battled the broken roads, old people who had been discarded? Only in the wealthy Western world could such a thing happen. For the first time in the history of the species the old had become encumbrances. We neglected them, segregated them in walled villages of their own kind with minders to look after them, benign concentration camps, leaving to the young the actual world beyond the walls.
Is most of this paragraph really the voice of Annie, or is it the voice of Joe Bennett, columnist and satirist, recycling a discarded opinion-piece? Later in the novel, the old republican in me agrees with the sardonic and disenchanted way Annie views the big jamboree and memorial service, starring Prince William, which is held in Hagley Park. But again, isn’t this really Bennett the satirist letting rip, rather than Annie? As often as this sort of thing happens, so often does Annie become a cipher and a mouthpiece, rather than a believable individual person.
There are other problems with voice in this novel. As a shortcut to delineating character, Bennett sometimes invents long, self-revelatory set-piece speeches. Annie’s boyfriend Paul gets four pages to outline his views on love, marriage and having children, in order to set up Annie’s dilemma about whether she will marry him or not. More unavoidable, I suppose, is the whole chapter (chapter 13) in which Rich’s old schoolmate Vince fills Annie in on his schoolboy intimacies. If your main character is going to interview a lot of leads, I guess this sort of scene has to happen. More distracting than this, though, is the artificiality of some voices. The old toff is given a super-refined idiom, which is more caricature than credible. When Annie’s mother eventually turns up, very late in the novel, she speaks like a stage version of an uptight, scorned and puritanical woman. I don’t believe the voice of either of them.
I enjoyed King Rich as yarn, and sometimes as social commentary, but not as profound revelation of character. It is well planned, but in execution its style is filled with liquefaction, potholes and broken bridges. A bit like the city it describes.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet, historian, teacher and biographer, and he runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.