Empty Bones and others Stories, by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, 2014), 182 pp., $30
Back in 2011, when I reviewed Breton Dukes’ debut book of short stories Bird North and other Stories, I was careful to note that one has to distinguish between an author’s skill on the one hand, and an author’s worldview or subject matter on the other. Frankly, said I, while I recognised Breton Dukes’ great skill as a writer, and his ability to shape a story and to make it allusive enough not to be a mere anecdote, I was nevertheless not in sympathy with his characters. Most of them seemed to be alienated young men, sometimes outdoorsy, sometimes druggie, nearly all not yet capable of sustained or meaningful relationships with others. To me, a sense of sickened machismo hung over the collection, as if these young men ached to be Good Keen Men but had somehow been damaged before reaching that goal.All of this is, perhaps, just an elaborate way of saying that Breton Dukes’ people are not my people and it is therefore hard for me to enter into his, or his characters’, worldview.
Three years later, reading his second short-story collection Empty Bones and other Stories, I have some of the same misgivings, but I can also see Breton Dukes coming on as a writer and tackling more complex narratives. Empty Bones and other Stories consists of five short stories surrounding the title novella, which, at just under 100 pages, takes up over half the collection.
To dispose of that vexing macho stuff first – the first two stories are definitely in the territory of troubled young men.
The (present tense, third person) tale ‘A fear of eels’, set in Northland, has a young man in some sort of psychological competition with his (single, divorced) father. While trying hard to make a life of his own, the young man has an aching sense of inferiority to his muscular, physically fit father, and in a central episode is further humiliated by his need for his father’s help. Am I wrong in seeing one key image, of a large eel in a drain, as some sort of phallic symbol, and its capture as some sort of dominance contest?
The (present tense, first person) story ‘Drunk in Dunedin’ is also a tale of a young man’s insufficiency. The young man’s mother is grievously sick. The young man wants to admit he’s still dependent on her, but instead he tries to play destructive student games when he gets drunk with a mate in a Dunedin pub. We are cued to this mindset early on in the story when we are told:
Rat knew Phil from primary school, and now and then he’d turn up. He worked the stop-go sign on a road gang. He did a few papers at polytech. He shaved off his hair and went around shirtless. When he was there he went even harder: whisky shots, beer bongs, spotting knives and hash oil. People threw up, things caught fire. He liked chants and songs and putting his fist through windows, then pissing into the hole he’d made. (pp. 26–27)
At this point I’m sorely tempted to make a judgment on such characters, which would doubtless be resented as moralistic and out-of-touch (although, God help me, having taught at Otago University I am fully in touch with such inane behaviour).
These two stories are the ones most indicative of youthful macho malaise. In others, however, this subject matter is presented with more nuance and in ways that point towards a development beyond the socially immature. The last (third-person, past tense) story in the collection, ‘The jetty’, is also the most haunting. A youngish male teacher and a youngish female teacher are on a combined tramping and fishing expedition in the bush. She’s laid down the rule that their relationship will be purely platonic. He – damaged very specifically by past events – yearns for a sexual relationship. I won’t say how this plays out, but I will note that it has a rather enigmatic ending (whales beaching) which reminds me of the way Dukes’ story ‘Pontoon’ ended in his earlier collection (dolphins beaching). Even the young man’s yearning is a sort of development beyond blokey mental games.
Of the other two short stories in Empty Bones and other Stories, I will note simply that they develop in quite unexpected ways, as it is not my business to reveal how they develop. ‘A lonely road’ (third-person, past tense) has a woman, living semi-rurally ‘up North’, dealing with an unwelcome male visitor. Here it is the woman whose mentality is most fully examined. ‘Animals’ (third-person, past tense) starts with a younger feller helping an older feller with various outdoor jobs, including the killing of rabbits. Dukes is very good at dealing with and describing physical processes – in this case the dog that scuffles into the rabbit holes – and at first the story seems merely anecdotal. But, even more drastically than ‘A lonely road’, it jumps to an unexpected and somewhat enigmatic conclusion.
Thus for the five short stories of this collection, which brings me at last to the main event, the novella ‘Empty Bones’. This is where I see Dukes having developed most since his last collection. ‘Empty Bones’ is a complex narrative with no single leading character but involving a whole family, nearly all of whom are given equal attention. I have taken careful note of the narrative voice in each story in this book partly because I want to acknowledge the complexity of Dukes’ technique in ‘Empty Bones’ – third person and past tense, but also jumping into flashbacks and with the author’s eye really giving us the third-person-limited technique whenever he focuses on an individual.
A father, Ian, currently without wife or partner, invites his adult children to a family ‘reunion’ north of Auckland. Unmarried son Chris, apparently both sexually promiscuous and going places in business, turns up with Kaile, an American woman he’s met through the gym. Daughter Laura has just got married to a guy who is left offstage for most of the story, and towards whom the rest of the family have a rather dismissive attitude. Married son Marcus, who has a wife and child in Auckland, makes excuses to himself not to turn up as he ‘tests’ his new motorbike on a long run through the central North Island. He’s of half a mind to hook up with an old mistress and cheat on his wife.
As events unfold at the ‘reunion’, it’s hard to refrain from psychoanalysing the cast. The inadequacy of Ian as a father seems to have led to fierce sibling rivalry among his children, who still respond to one other as they did in childhood, always trying to outbid one another in terms of status symbols. This carries over into the males’ sexual behaviour, where women become trophies. Laura longs for a ‘normal’ family life, as seen in the movies – sharing, friendship and happiness. As she wails at one point, ‘I keep waiting for us to happen’ (p. 134). She also comes nearest to explaining the novella’s title for:
When she was young … Laura thought Ian and her brothers had hollow bones. They were fast and nimble and their proportions were right, as if with brown paper taped across their backs, with string and ribbon, they could have been raised into the air. (p. 69)
In other words, they seemed like kites, playthings, something cheerful. As in childhood, Laura desperately wants her father’s approval and sometimes attempts things (such as fishing) her mother once did. It’s a disconsolate, dripping Laura who is depicted in Dylan Horrocks’ cover illustration to this book. In a way, Laura has a kind of ‘Electra Complex’ (the thing Sylvia Plath used to bang on about) about her father. As for Ian, this father could be said to have an Oedipus Complex in reverse, with his continuing attempts to compete with his sons by staying young (he’s just had a facelift; he works out with weights) and supplanting his sons sexually.
Now I think everything I’ve said is at least implicit in this novella. But the trouble with such analysis is that it is really reductionist. It schematises too neatly what the story is about and, above all, it overlooks what should be the chief subject of literary appreciation – an analysis of the skill of the author in writing.
I am convinced of the reality of Laura and (as with the woman in the story ‘A lonely road’), I think Dukes’ interest in a female perspective is a sign of his developing in new directions as a writer. More to the point, in this novella there are excellent examples of Dukes’ ability to convey swift action in convincing analytic detail (a near road accident at pp. 102–03) and his ability to dramatise things without spelling them out – notably the inability of many males to articulate what they mean, seen in a painful conversation between Chris and Laura at pp. 103–06. This is writing of the first order.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland historian, poet, teacher and reviewer who holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. His works include three biographies, two general histories and the poetry collection The Little Enemy (Steele Roberts, 2011). He has four times guest-edited Poetry New Zealand, and he runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.