It starts like a contender for Worst Father's Day Book Ever but somehow, without wimping out, ends on a real grace note. Michael Fallow finds a lot to like in the novel Duncan Sarkies finished in Invercargill.
Hide-and-seek, says Duncan Sarkies, is quite a scary game.
If you're a child crouched somewhere, unfound, are you really victorious? Or abandoned?
The idea of the lazy seeker, the person who just hasn't looked for you as hard as they should, is woven through his second novel, Demolition of the Century.
It's a story of loss centred around an insurance investigator who for all his professional trackdown skills has been a lazy seeker in his personal life. As the story starts, he has lost his socks, his suitcase, his career, his wife and, most importantly his son, whom he had promised to pick up from school.
Amid his desperate search for his boy our careworn protagonist finds himself being hunted for his own past transgressions.
Admittedly, in its early passages this story will unsettle many a protective parent. Then, wham. Sarkies isn't above hitting his reader from behind. A massive plot twist not half way through the story recasts much that has gone before, as we watch a man trying to outrun his present and catch his past.
Sarkies remembers when the realisation hit him that his story had bolted from his own grasp, somewhat, and had shot away into the demanding dynamics of the detective/mystery genre.
"It was a slightly depressing moment. I realised how much work was ahead of me."
Picture a wall with lots of cards on it; all this information that had to be meted out to the reader at exactly the right time to make not just the end, but the journey to it, rewarding.
None of the material was just imaginatively plucked out of the ether. Sarkies used plenty of his own memories, for starters. (Disclaimer: bad-daddery itself was not among them.) Then there were many interviews and much study into the racing stud industry, retirement villages and demolition work.
Demolitions keep shaking this story and not only because the various chases are being played out as a beloved town cinema is being torn down.
Nothing lasts forever. But the story isn't a lamentation of loss as much as a study of change.
"I think we all know people who we've watched grow old . . . and you can almost see it etched in their face, the way that their wrinkles set, whether they are someone who has been able to accept an ever- changing world, or whether they haven't.
"Some things we have no control over but we can control our reaction to what happens."
Sarkies wrote some of the novel in Invercargill, while he and brother Robert were working on their film of his first one Two Little Boys.
And then again, came the pressured bit where, while he was teaching writing to students at the Southern Institute of Technology.
"I had a deadline in the middle of that where I had to get the final draft [of Demolition] - the one that I was never allowed to touch again - to the publishers."
Yule House, the city's oldest residence, was nicely offered for the task, and there he put the finishing touches. One result is that more than just a few evocations of Invercargill will flash out for southern readers.
During his SIT lectures, Sarkies made a wee headline in The Southland Times for encouraging his students to treat their brain like a blender, taking care over the ingredients of their story but then being reactive to how natural thought processes combine them.
He swotted up on sales books from the 1950s because his character was initially going to be a salesman. Instead he turned out to be an insurance investigator. But still the knowledge of sales schtick found expression in this story because the character did have that aspect to him. He was trying to sell people on an inferior product, all right. Himself.
And, of course, we all have to deal with rejection sometimes. Tucked away in the acknowledgments at the back of The Demolition of the Century is one to Creative NZ, with the cheerful comment "ninth time lucky".
"Had a bad run," Sarkies says. "That's OK. Any funding organisation has to make difficult choices when there's not enough money. . . . and it's natural from my perspective that I'll question their judgment because any writer worth their salt will think they should get the money. But no-one has any divine right to it and someone has to make the call."
Nine times, though. You could see that as a discouragement, or an encouragement. It's a matter of perspective, and you better believe perspective matters.
In hindsight, then, a splendid Father's Day gift. Keep the old guy on his toes. Then he might want to lend it to the kids, for much the same reason.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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