Johnson by Dean Parker (Steele Roberts, 2017), 339 pp., $35
In 1995 Sam Neill presented a TV programme called the Cinema of Unease in which he referred to Man Alone, a famous novel by John Mulgan. ‘We hadn’t read it of course,’ said Neill cheerily. Speak for yourself, Sam! My edition – alas pages are falling out – dates from around 1980. Since it was first published in 1939 it has gone through 18 editions/reprints (as of 1980). Currently, its stands at 41! Not bad for a book that allegedly no one is reading. Happily, it is still in print today. Even people who haven’t read it (take a bow, Sam) are dimly aware that it contains an epic winter crossing by a ‘man alone’ in the centre of the North Island.
I’ve had occasion to re-read it for a good reason. Dean Parker, a successful playwright, has just published his first novel, Johnson, which takes up the subsequent life of the main character of Mulgan’s book. At the conclusion of Man Alone, Johnson is entering Spain where war is raging against Generalissimo Franco. The epilogue concludes: ‘I find one satisfaction knowing Johnson is still alive. There are some fellows … you can’t kill.’ Unconsciously, this concluding text prefigures the new novel Johnson. Johnson is a man you cannot kill. You can only resurrect him in a new book.
What is striking about Mulgan’s hard, honest, terse, grounded prose is how well he has adapted Hemingway’s stylistic mannerisms to a local setting. In fact, I prefer Mulgan to Hemingway, who is always dangerously close to self-parody. Mulgan also surpasses Sargeson (who was the original conduit for the Hemingway style), and one could add Barry Crump. Man Alone has been acclaimed as our first great novel. This is misguided over-praise. It is a good novel, but not a great one.
Apart from the epic struggle across the wintery Kaimanawa crossing, a noticeable feature of Johnson’s character in the original novel is his rootlessness. Time after time, after proving he is a capable worker and, accordingly, is offered a grubstake in a farm, he turns it down. Nor does he want to be married. Nor does he talk a lot. In this sense, even before he makes his mountain-ridge crossing, he is a man alone. The crossing reinforces an aloneness already present. Despite this dominating motif of isolation, there are passages where Johnson is absorbed into a crowd or dancing with Rua (the young Māori heroine) where he feels, if not happy, at least content.
His relationship with Rua has the unmistakable menace of trouble. And the tussle with farmer Stenning over possession of a fateful rifle proves to be just that. Not just trouble: the accidental shooting will almost certainly be regarded as murder. So he goes on the run.
The creation of a novel that continues the life of Johnson is both a bold step and yet, in a sense, an unsurprising one. It was an opportunity for any writer with the daring to seize the option. Though many of Shakespeare’s characters have long since had a second life, as have Swift’s Gulliver, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Stoker’s Dracula, it nonetheless remains a relatively rare step in New Zealand letters, to the best of my knowledge not previously attempted before Mulgan’s book. If we assert with some confidence that no other New Zealand novel is as iconic as Man Alone, it is a bold step for Parker to jump into Mulgan’s boots. Do they fit? Yes, they do. Most admirably!
Parker uses the same author/character framing device that Mulgan does. ‘I met Johnson on the quay / I met Johnson again in 1951.’ Within a few pages we are in the streets of embattled Madrid where the International Brigade, plus the anarchists and the communists, try, alas unsuccessfully, to oust the brutally fascist Franco from his position of newly acquired power:
Even in the Great War Johnson had seen nothing like Madrid. It was a fortress of trenches and barricades and the charred skeletons of burnt-out trucks and cars. Dust and smoke rose from bombed apartment buildings and hung in the sky.
At intervals shells would smash into the city with a roar like a locomotive. Cars would blare past with first aid attendants crouched on the running boards.
There’d be a deafening bang and glass would burst from a building, and in the silence that followed women and old men and children would appear, white ghosts, faces, hair, clothes covered in crumbling plaster.
In other words, the city is in a state of mayhem and chaos.
Here is displayed a formalistic device Parker uses frequently – paragraphs of only one, or at most two, sentences. At first, the effect is a trifle disconcerting. Then it occurred to me that the stylistic mannerism is a formalistic metaphor for sporadic bursts of bullets and bombs – explosions then silence. More explosions, more silence.
Another of Parker’s formalistic mannerisms is what could be called the neo-Hemingwayesque dialogue:
‘Got it!’ he said. ‘Johnson!’
‘What’s that?’ said Johnson.
‘Don’t think so.’
‘I’ve just remembered.’
‘The name’s Quinn.’
‘I reckon?’ The Kiwi grinned at the familiar term.
‘You’ve been to Kiwiland, haven’t you?’
‘Don’t think so.’
‘I reckon you have. I reckon. I reckon your name’s Johnson.’
In my world people don’t speak so laconically; but in the world of certain New Zealanders they do. There is a second subtext. In New Zealand, especially in 1934 or so, the pursuit of a murderer would have been a matter of keen public interest (his interrogator is an ex-policeman). So Johnson being spotted is not as implausible as might be thought. When two Kiwis meet there is often a frisson of recognition. Johnson is not even safe overseas and in the army, that hider of miscreants. Thirdly, Johnson has given himself away as a Kiwi by using the idiomatic ‘I reckon’. As it turns out, after strenuous denial, he decides to confess his crime. Thus the apparent simplicity of the dialogue winds up being quite complex.
In contrast to the devices of economy outlined above, Parker occasionally lets fly a burst of baroque shrapnel:
… behind the gliders came something utterly new, an approaching rumbling thunder, a wave of transporters, and from the transporters tiny black confetti appeared, clouds of confetti, confetti that opened up into thistle blossom, falling like feathers, like snow, like dust, like fluff, like fairies, delicate and filmy, silkily blanketing the sky, hundreds, thousands of parachutists, wafting down, white chutes, coloured chutes.
No Hemingway here!
The event described is the arrival of 10,000 German paratroopers in Crete. Despite 4000 being killed, the remaining 6000 took the island prisoner. Johnson is in the thick of it. Parker describes in expert detail his training for a new military mission of blowing up bridges. Narrative adrenaline rises during the ensuing pages. Thus Parker explores two important theatres of European war.
In this sequel, Hilary is the female interest. She and Johnson share a feverish on/off relationship partly dictated by the exigencies of war. Yet their final, almost unexpected reunion is somewhat anticlimactic. True passion often wins out in the end (at least in romantic films), though circumstances can cheat it of its desired fruition. The jury may be out on this one. My view is that the scene of reunion should have been more immediate and less indirect. In a prior chapter, Leonard Harrington, who Johnson meets in a Cairo bar, is further introduced to Hassan, a suave lawyer in his mid-thirties. It seems that Hassan has been intimate with Hilary, which leads Leonard to say with casual brutality, ‘He fucked her too.’ There can hardly be a more taxing demand of Johnson’s loyalty and interest.
A point of criticism – the large number of songs. There must be over 30 – though I haven’t counted. If you were there on the barricades or in the hills the reprint of political songs will be an exercise in warm nostalgia, but if you were not present, you will be struck by their banality, their often futile hope. Yet what is absent from printed lyrics is the sound of massed human throats lifting the print toward the heavens.
Another item might be Parker’s treatment of Mulgan – yes, the original author makes a postmodern appearance. Parker’s Mulgan is a garrulous drunk, which doesn’t seem quite fair. Surely he was more than that. After all, he wrote Man Alone!
Nonetheless, Johnson is a triumph for Parker, and this well-designed book is enfolded by a period painting by Lois White. Both gloomy and full of vigour, it is appropriately called War Makers.
Tailfeather: at the conclusion of his novel, Parker states that chapter 28 was lifted from Man Alone. I am unable to find the original passage. Trace elements come from chapter 15 though not (in my scrutiny) the whole chapter. Have I misread the text?
MICHAEL MORRISSEY has published 22 books – 11 poetry, 4 fiction, 2 books of short stories, one autobiography, and edited 5 other books, mainly anthologies of short fiction. He won the MacMillan Brown Prize in 1977 and was the first Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury in 1979. In 1985 he was the first New Zealand participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.