The Day Hemingway Died by Owen Marshall
John Mclndoe 1984
Reviewed by Richard Dingwall Landfall March 1986
Owen Marshall's world is a world remembered, the action often framed by a present day narrative, It is a world where the individual and often the eccentric individual, is valued above the group; it is a world where men have 'Lived on, diminishing in quiet, unfettered contempt, unaware that they are no longer typical'.
The quotation is from 'Takahe Man' where the lost world is personified in the narrator's uncle whose failing health is in the decline of his farm. 'He'd not so much shrunk with age and illness, as slumped. Width had slipped from his shoulders to his hips.' Uncle and nephew share a meal and 'tail a mob'. They reflect on change. 'I'm not much interested in stretching out the dog tucker years' says the older man. Like the dog whose working days are done Ted is 'buggered'.
It is a mood piece with Marshall writing at his best. The setting and the characters are well drawn and allowed to tell their own story. 'The Late Call' a story of two young men unloading frozen lamb carcases from railway wagons is equally impressive in its laconic delivery.
In 'Sully's Country' the sheer physical presence of the heat in a high country summer is marvellously evoked: 'The basin country was yellow-ginger and rounded in the sun; sprawled in the sun, and there was a shimmer of heat from the road and the bare river line like a scar'. The sentences have a cadence that evokes the langour of high summer.
It is a familiar criticism of Marshall's writing to say he tries to make the reader's mind up instead of allowing the words and the characters to speak for themselves. He does this in two ways. first he surrounds a story with aphorisms. 'Time winnows our experience in a quite unconscious way... '('Hammond's Stand'). Sometimes this reads as though the writer is using these introductions as a way of warming up, of getting the creative juices flowing, but it can also be effective. The boy, Hammond, having taken on the school system and won, is last seen working in a supermarket. 'He would give us the thumbs-up as we passed, and we would do the same, grin, and wonder what other challenges he would withstand.'
The other way that Marshall makes up the reader's mind is, to use Bernard Gadd's words, 'by concluding a story by pressing its point' (Landfall 146). To that I should like to add forcing the narrative pace, the story, at the expense of the whole. In 'Sully's Country' the suggestion that the farmer's boy Stuart is the birth son of the farm hand Morris rather than the boy's father Clem surely has greater implications than as Sully says at the end, 'They're not much interested in appearances, the people out here. They're interested in what works.'
A number of stories suffer with this persistence in taking things all the way. In 'Kenneth's Friend' the narrator is an adolescent boy holidaying with Kenneth and his family. Kenneth wants not a friend but 'some one to boss about'. The boy finally takes his revenge by destroying the family shell collection. But Kenneth is drowned at the same time so the significance of his action is diminished. The creak of the backstage machinery drowns out the voices of the actors.
In his interview with Lawrence Jones (Landfall 150) Owen Marshall acknowledges this tendency to 'speak for the story when it can speak for itself but is not unduly worried by this. 'It may be concerned with my being a teacher'. Yet I wonder if he doesn't underestimate the potency of the simple action; Paul in 'The Late Call' wandering off to the pub careless of the consequences for job or marriage, or Ted at the end of 'Takahe Man', 'He stood with his mouth wide open, and watched me until I reached the road gate, then he turned back towards the farmhouse and the sheds; back to the old buildings only partly used, and the speckled light of the low sun through the pines.'
Marshall has always produced work either humorous or satirical that doesn't necessarily fit with his reputation as a social realist. Professional people have regularly been the target for some of the social satire. In 'Counsel Given And Received' an inept marriage guidance counsellor, name of Verity, is portrayed in a lightweight deflation of the New Zealand male. More successful is 'The Fat Boy', a sinister piece, where the mysterious, almost mythical, fat boy becomes the ideal scapegoat for an entire community. 'They shared, among other things, a conviction that life would be immeasurably better for them all with the fat boy gone'. Here the group is seen as a malevolent and destructive force. (See Landfall 150.)
Finally there are a number of stories where the author turns his attention on language itself. This is a development from previous collections, and meets with mixed success. 'Choctaw Princess' rattles with strange words more suited to the scrabble board. More satisfying is the playful 'The Divided World' which is a story without narrative; a prose poem, perhaps; a procession of opposites and partial opposites, some humorous, some serious, some contradictory. The piece resolves nicely, 'The world is divided between you and me, you and me for a time, you and me'. (See Landfall 151.)
Some small points. The continued use of character and place names with no other connection between the stories is distracting and irritating. The family name Ransumeen, for example, does have an inelegant charm but this has paled after repeated use over three volumes of fiction, while Te Tarehi as a place name never quite tripped off the tongue. The book is well presented but with a cover illustration unconnected to the contents.
Owen Marshall has a remarkable aptitude for evoking people and places, and an enthusiasm for telling a good story. These virtues along with his many prologues and epilogues combine to produce a fictional world that is recognisably the writer's own.
There is much in this collection that will satisfy Marshall's many admirers and his increasing confidence with language may attract more. I, however, remain unconvinced. The rural or small town settings seem unreal, almost mythical without that being in the author's control, and the theme of the individual, the loner, the outcast in conflict with the larger group looks too simple given the complexities of the contemporary world. Lastly there is a hostility to some of his characters that I find disquieting. The awful balloon-faced Mrs Ransumeen in the title story ('looking blown up and deflated both at the same time') and the self-assured Russell in 'Don't Blame Yourself At All', for example, are without redeeming features. A writer needn't display compassion or pity but perhaps he should be even-handed.
Contents of collection:
The Littlejohn Interview
On the Way to Te Tarehi
The Late Call
A Test of Fire
The Seed Merchant
'Here We All Are Then'
Bravo Echo Victor
A Town of Rivers
Movements of the Dance
The Paper Parcel
The Fat Boy
Don't Blame Yourself At All
Half a Crown
The Guppy Breeders' Flag
Counsel Given and Received
The Day Hemingway Died