Drongo by Ian Richards (Atuanui Press, 2019), 384 pp., $38
It’s 1977. Andy Ingle has finished at Palmerston North Boys’ High School and wants to be a writer. With his trusty portable typewriter, Half-Arse, and his girlfriend Chloe, Andy travels to the outskirts of Masterton to visit a school friend, Phillip, who’s living with his dad. After a failed attempt to lose his virginity, Andy absconds with a bankteller, Penny, who’s heading to Wellington. After another near-miss at losing his virginity (‘my sex life was turning out to be a lot more complicated than I’d planned’), Andy ghosts Penny and takes the ferry south by himself. The pattern holds for the rest of the novel: Andy latches onto someone, enters their world, stumbles at a sexual hurdle and then lights out for the next territory.
Greymouth … Auckland … Sydney …
Drag parties … bogan piss-ups … beauty pageants …
Aside from Andy’s sexual misadventures, the other uniting comic thread in the novel is how he constantly talks about being a writer and lugs that friggin’ typewriter around with him but has no idea what to write about. He doesn’t seem to read or love books. He’s in love with the idea of being a writer rather than the act of creation or the power of literature. (Although, as this novel is narrated in the first person, it could be argued Andy did eventually write something.)
Drongo follows in the long tradition of the picaresque novel with a flawed protagonist. The comparisons with Cervantes make themselves (the sexual innuendo of tilting at windmills reduced to single entendre; Half-Arse as Andy’s silent Sancho Panza), but Richards has singled out Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma as a particular favourite. It’s possible the title of his novel is a deliberate echo of Stendhal’s protagonist, Fabrice del Dongo, and there’s a very funny moment late in the novel when Andy considers what he might call his novel—which is still just as much an abstraction as it’s always been—and offers The Charterhouse of Palmy. The only problem with this joke is whether our drongo would know enough about books to make it.
If by this point in the review you are getting the impression I was not won over by Drongo, let me admit that I was a turn-of-the-millennium version of Andy Ingle. I attended Palmerston North Boys’ High School (though, oddly, it seemed more traditional in the 90s than the 70s version Richards depicts) and had the same adolescent desire to be a writer. I left Palmy at the age of eighteen with that aim, though I didn’t write my first manuscript until I was twenty-one—a roadtrip novel that sought to appropriate Māori myth and superstition and which was thankfully never published but did provide me the one-liner: twenty-one-year-old males should not spend that much time alone in a room doing anything.
You may think this makes me the ideal reader of this novel and you’d be wrong. I mean, who really wants to be confronted with the egotism and naivety of their youth for 384 pages?
Richards does a good line in creating a dimwit worthy of our derision. Longwinded on the page. Superficial in his thoughts. Clueless in his interactions. ‘I don’t suppose you’d get out very much,’ he says to the editor of the Caxton Press, whose name he never learns. ‘I suppose, for you, reality must seem like quite a novelty.’
The characters in the novel do not react to Andy as the reader does. He is possessed of some extra-textual charisma that means he’s constantly being invited into vehicles and bedrooms and being fed, housed, clothed and supplied with drugs without any expectation of payment. He’s literally in the passenger seat for much of the novel, wearing other people’s clothes (or their mother’s clothes in one case), going to other people’s parties or in search of a commune as part of someone else’s midlife crisis. The only times Andy acts is when he ghosts his latest girlfriend and heads someplace else. The suddenness of these departures, the artificiality of the transitions—it’s as if fifty pages is the limit of everyone’s endurance with a particular milieu.
Speaking of endurance, a modern reader accustomed to scanning online news and social media feeds will need buckets of it when reading Drongo. Andy-as-narrator writes in a semi-literate blend of ellipses and full-stops, only resorting to paragraph breaks when dialogue necessitates. It has the look of stream of consciousness without any of the psychological insight. The result is every page presents as a wall of text. The reader has the option of descending carefully, following every foothold, or rappelling with greater abandon.
The American TV critic-turned-showrunner Andy Greenwald likes to talk about shows that teach you how to watch them. It could be a slow-burning, timeshifted drama like Better Call Saul or a series that delights in narrative jumps and elision like The Leftovers. About a quarter of the way into Drongo, I wondered if this was a book that was trying to teach me how to read it. If the temptation to skim over the interminable chunks of text looking for dialogue was intentionally baked into the DNA of the text. If Richards was making a very meta play to shift not just our sympathies away from the protagonist but our attention. Such are the places my mind wandered when spending time with Andy Ingle.
When it comes to narrative drive—aka giving the reader a reason to persist—the novel suffers from the congenital flaw of the picaresque and its modern twin, the roadtrip tale: it’s very hard to care about characters we can sense will just be single serve acquaintances and in the rear view within twenty pages. Even within the constraints of genre, Richards could have done a better job of foreshadowing some of these characters. Despite the first lengthy chapter being devoted to Andy’s life in Palmerston North at the tail end of high school, we’re only introduced to his school friend Phillip, who’ll provide the impetus for Andy to leave Palmy, on page 47. This happens again a hundred pages later when Andy heads to Christchurch and remembers that another new-to-us school friend, Struan, now lives there. Such conjuring does little to instil in readers the feeling that Andy’s existence extends beyond the page; that this run of text and ellipses is the distillation of true events and not just a headlong run of invention.
The book is strongest when it strives to lampoon Andy the horny teen, and on those rare occasions the wider world is tuned to the same frenzied pitch. Near the end of the novel Andy forces his way into the Miss New Zealand pageant in another lust-struck pursuit, while onstage the MC blathers: ‘Come on folks. Let’s welcome these ladies. Aren’t they lovely, eh? The only thing that’s wrong with them is they’ve still got their clothes on.’
But the sparks of too few scenes manage to bridge the gap between the attitudes of the late seventies and today.
Take the novel’s approach to race, which is only noteworthy when a character is non-white. When Andy and Penny thumb a ride across the Rimutakas to Wellington, the driver ‘was Māori, thick-necked, and had a square, heavy face’. The man in the passenger seat ‘was also Māori’ and the two of them are collectively referred to as ‘The Māoris’ for page after page. The four of them get stoned en route and it’s as caricatured as you might expect.
Later, in Christchurch, Andy notices two men outside practising fighting with knives: ‘they were Māoris, both in white singlets’. Later he learns there’s a gang living at the rear of Struan’s flat.
I can easily forgive the use of what we’d now consider an incorrect plural for the sake of authenticity to the time period, but I cannot accept that the novel does nothing to disabuse Andy of the notion that Māori are all dopeheads or gang members.
It’s one thing to cringe through the original version of Goodbye Pork Pie, released in 1981, and another for a book published in 2019 to fall into traps we hoped had been decommissioned. Richards’ novel and Geoff Murphy’s film feel like contemporaries, which is not a compliment, at least from the lips of this reformed horny provincial teen wannabe writer drongo.
CRAIG CLIFF is the author of a short story collection and two novels, most recently Nailing Down the Saint (Penguin, 2019), which he worked on as the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 2017.