Coming Home in the Dark by Owen Marshall
Reviewed by Michael Morrissey
Random House. Auckland $24.85.
A sociology major could do well to study the work of Owen Marshall. There's a galaxy of modest occupations covered in the two dozen plus stories in this outstanding collection. 'Working Up North' has a fish-splitter from Nelson, 'A Part of Life' a Tekapo motel cleaner, 'Cass Robbins' an electrician who moves south looking for cheap accommodation.
In his sophisticated fashion, Marshall is still reworking the legacy of Sargeson- choosing a scrupulous scrutiny of the lower socio-economic groups over the boardrooms of the corporation executive. But in range and in the poetry of his phrasing, he has surpassed the old master.
Who else would describe a German shepherd raising its head being "like a wine taster" or third form schoolboys being "bright as reef fish in their new uniforms"?
A Dickensian gusto reveals itself in the characters' names-Wesley Igor Drom, Nadine Undermeyer Shaking Snake Reilly, Nobby Aldiger, Simone Proctor, Lucy Ogg, Christine Flowerday; and there's the colourful one-namers - Cog, Pendragon, Chink, Rabber, Turtle.
The characters are always described in memorable terms: "He made a good deal of eye contact, tilting his head up so that the trajectory of his great nose altered and the large nostrils came level with my vision like the muzzles of a shotgun."
The stories fall into three groups - fully developed human dramas, quiet character evocations and the formally experimental. Most touching of all is A Part of Life, where Polly, a down-at-heels motel cleaner, trades her body off to a well-heeled ageing American.
Some of the extended character sketches have no discernible climax. Prairie Nights shows how skilfully Marshall can combine the external world of an ad agency with the central narrator's inner life, which concludes with the poetry of "the vast herds of bison rush through the night with the white 'wolves of the moon in silent pursuit".
The experimental pieces such as The Lenny Fudge Bibliography and the question-and-answer format of Recollections of MKD, are amusing, but pale beside the Southern Gothic flavour of Flute and Chance (with its aphoristic cut-throat razor-wielder) and the chilling title story (which is as shocking as any by Flannery O'Connor).
The satisfyingly unsentimental humanity of Marshall's work, combined with his great eye for detail and his striking similes, reassures us that we are in the firm but sensitive hands of a master craftsman. Timaru's answer to John Updike is once again in fine form.
Morrissey is an Auckland fiction writer, poet and reviewer