Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Demolition of the Century by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin 2013)

The Empire Cinema in Island Bay Wellington shut down his week.  There was a lot of disbelief in the community and I came across one woman who was lamenting the fact that she could no longer take her grandchildren there for ice cream after their weekly trip to the library.  While the Empire is still standing, for now, an old cinema called the Century is being demolished by Spud and his team in Sarkies second novel.  The cinema stands as a metaphor for the examination of the past, where Spud takes out the good bits and takes the wrecking ball to the rest.  While Spud is doing the demo job, a man called Tom Spotswood (aka William McGinty) has returned to town in order to find his hidden loot got by fraudulent means, and to reconnect with his wife and their seven year old son, Frank. 

The novel follows Spud and Tom and their struggle to emotionally connect with those they love amongst the stresses of life.  Spud shows more affection for his T-Rex wrecking ball (not in a Miley Cyrus way) than to his wife and daughter, while Tom tries to connect with his son, but the men who are tracking Tom down for his loot continually get in his way.  The strength of this novel is it’s characterisation of men who feel intensely for those around them but cannot express it.

Duncan Sarkies is the author of Two Little Boys and he also wrote the screenplay Scarfies; both of which have been made into films by his brother Robert.  While I have never met the brothers, I have met their Uncle.  I was working in a doctor’s surgery during the university summer break.  The Uncle didn’t go by his proper first name, adopting a nickname which didn’t align with his medical record (which a surprising number of people do), anyway, it took me a while to find his record.  While I was fumbling about he said:
“You must have heard of my nephews?” 
I must have looked puzzled at this point – I had registered the name Sarkies but didn’t think much of it – I just wanted to find the man’s file while thinking that I needed to find a way to avoid administration jobs for the rest of my life.
“You know, Robert and Duncan, Scarfies?”
“Oh yes, yes, of course.”
Uncle was happy, and I had found his file.
You know you must be pretty flash if you’re getting name dropped in a South Dunedin medical reception, and yes, I agree that the Sarkies brothers are pretty flash, and that Duncan has had a commercially successful writing career.   (He also has the flashest author picture since Stephanie Johnson decided to wear a cowgirl hat.)  But what my anecdote is trying to illustrate is that he is a Dunedin boy who has based his stories in the city, and he has successfully shown a white male working class/bogan culture, most prominently in Two Little Boys, within that city.  I enjoy the way he writes the intensity of the homosocial connections between characters in a city which has a very strong homosocial history with men coming to the region to find gold, and undertake other colonial manly pursuits. 

In the latest novel however, Sarkies characters have upped sticks to somewhere called The City, which going by some of The City’s features is Wellington by another name.  Every time The City was mentioned in the book I was a wee Bit Annoyed and questioned why he didn’t just name the actual city the characters are in.  I guess he could have changed locations because he was sick of being associated with Dunedin and wanted a change of scene, and perhaps by having a nondescript name for The City means the novel may have a greater international audience, and maybe he wanted to play it a bit free and loose with locations and was aiming for an imaginative landscape rather than a literal one.  These are valid reasons, but for someone who has lived in both Dunedin and Wellington it became a Bit Annoying, a distraction from the characters, and left me wondering why Sarkies was avoiding place when it has served him so well in the past.

My other nit-picking comment is the first person perspective.  The novel interweaves the first person perspective of Spud and Tom which means that some scenes where both characters appear are told twice.  A close third person narrator who focalised both of the characters may have been more effective, it would have saved the double ups while still getting inside each character’s head.  But don’t let my comments about The City and narrative perspective put you off this novel.  It is very entertaining.  Sarkies has an excellent ear for idiom and dialogue.  The demolition lingo and Spud’s collection of artefacts from the sites rang true to me because my father partook in a little demolition and could not help but bring a lot of crap home, and like Spud, my dad also had a few random yards around the place.  It also made me recall the time when I was growing up in Timaru and an old department store was being demolished to make way for a bank.  As a family we sat in the car and watched the wrecking ball swing, and this is what good books should do - bring up your own recollections so that you can relate to the characters on a deeper level.  

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