Book Review: Johnson, by Dean Parker

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_johnsonWhen I was at school we were given a book to read for UE English. It was John Mulgan’s Man Alone. Published in 1939 and regarded as a classic of Kiwi Literature it was the story of Johnson, an ex-soldier who escapes the devastation of the Great Depression back in the Home Country by emigrating to New Zealand to start a new life. Arriving first in Auckland, he becomes entangled in the labour and watersider riots that are prevalent at the time. At one of these he is accused of assaulting a policeman and so he flees south to the central North Island to work as a farm hand. Whilst there he has an affair with his boss’s wife. Then there’s the accidental killing of his employer which turns him into a fugitive, on the run across rough hill country. By the novel’s end, he is contemplating leaving the country to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

For us students, we were taught to contemplate how the economic state of the country was juxtaposed with the antihero mythology of the novel. Johnson, with his existential presence, has no close bonds to others and is determined to live by his own means. It’s the birth of the great Kiwi Bloke. The strong silent type who goes bush at the first sign of trouble. He doesn’t vote, he runs away. He’s John Wayne ‘cowboy’ of Aotearoa. A man who answered only to God and himself. You see this archetypical character emerge again and again – most recently in Sam Neil’s portray the cantankerous ‘Hec’ in Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople – itself, an interpretation of writings of another great bushman, Barry Crump. And there’s plenty more – Roger Donaldson has made a career out of these men – remember Vigil, Sleeping Dogs? Incidentally, the prominence of the novel and the nature of Johnson have led to the term “Man Alone”, which became a description of a particular archetype in New Zealand and Australian fiction. I believe Mulgan actually took the title for his novel from a line in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

Still, what happened after Johnson left for Spain? Playwright Dean Parker attempts to fill us in. Our story begins with the cover, Lois White’s wonderful painting War Makers, rendered as almost ceramic figures, like the famous Lladró – strong, beautiful but ultimately fragile and brittle. Johnson is like one of those figurines. But he’s also a warrior. He fights the bloody battles in Spain, brawls with facists in London at the start of WWII, serves in Greece and along the way meets the cop that pursued him back in New Zealand in the high country. He’s also a guerrilla for a time in Crete, where he comes across an exhausted and deluded Kiwi officer called … Mulgan. It’s almost too much. How can he be part of so much history.

Something calls him back here and upon returning to our shores after the war he takes up his life of hard living. He mixes again with his old crowd and eventually joins the Communist Party. It is now 1951 and New Zealand is gripped by post-war class politics. The embers that will eventually fuel CK Stead’s Smith’s Dream have started warming. It’s the Labour movement versus the Employer and the Industrialists. It’s year of the great Watersider’s Lockout. More history to cram in.

It’s literally one event after the other. At times, it’s almost unbelievable how much living one man can do. But this is apparently typical of Parker’s writing. He enjoys putting his procrastinators right in the middle of a staunch political and historical narrative of class warfare. And there are plenty of regulars drifting in and out of each scene. Like Hillary, a green eyed left-wing lass who seems to pop up everywhere. Especially all over Europe. This all seems just a little too unlikely. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a challenge but if you suspend your belief and your relish the ways she finds a way finally manages to tame Johnson then you can see this through to the natural conclusion. The Man Alone no longer, as it were. This is not so much in the typical romantic fashion but as a long-term calming interest. How that happens ends up being just a little bit fantastical but don’t let that put you off. Perhaps this is just a comment on the way we all grow and mature. We all have our wildness and as we age, we need security and chose to settle.

It’s always a bit of challenge when a writer of one particular takes on a different genre and platform. As a playwright Parker is familiar with the power of economical, clipped writing, with no additional waffle or floral prose to fill the pages. I appreciated this as it fits almost seamlessly with Mulgan’s original material. I also hope that Parker might one day consider this as a play. It would be a great accompaniment to Mason’s End of The Golden Weather. While that was a positive and nostalgic reflection of mid-century New Zealand, Johnson is more of a darker, proletariat interpretation. Almost like the other side of the coin. But both have a similar style, feel and language.

Okay, so it’s loaded with plenty of coincidences, the cinematic and theatrical implications are large. But best, it does justice and perhaps enhances that original old craggy story of Mulgan’s. It was a little odd going back to a book I was effectively forced to read. I wouldn’t have chosen it back in my school days. Mainly because, despite the potential of the plot, the writing was just too dry and tedious for a 16-year-old. Parker must have realised this and makes sure that his book rockets along. Part of the reason he can get away with smoke and mirrors so convincingly.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Johnson
by Dean Parker
Published bt Steele Roberts Aotearoa
ISBN 9780947493530

438 Days – An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea, by Jonathan Franklin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_438_days438 Days is the astounding story of a Mexican fisherman who drifted over 9,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, spending over a year at sea – lost, alone and fighting for survival.

Swept away from his home village during a ferocious storm, Salvador Alvarenga was cast out into the vast, empty and treacherous Pacific Ocean during an ill-advised fishing trip on 17 November 2012. The storm hit, the motor in the boat broke 20 miles off shore, the radio ran out of batteries and died, and the GPS monitor was not waterproof and was quickly waterlogged by the waves crashing over the boat.

Alvarenga managed one SOS call to shore before the radio died, and rescuers quickly mounted a search, but the weather was rough, and by the time a search began, Avarenga’s boat had drifted westward out of reach.
Lost, but with an indomitable spirit and a refusal to give in, Alvarenga learned how to feed himself by catching seabirds resting on his boat, hauling in turtles, and scooping the small but feisty triggerfish in his bare arms. With sharks bumping into his boat to remind him that one small swim outside his boat would mean certain death, Alvarenga was bound in his silent, lonely and desperate new home. Sheltering in the small icebox used to store a fisherman’s catch, he avoided the scorching sun, and by night, he lay on the floor of his boat and watched a sky filled with stars, satellites and wistfully watched the occasional plane flying over.

The description of Alvarenga’s life as a dirt-poor fisherman is fascinating. He lives in tiny beach village where drug-runners in boats share the same waterways as the fishermen, where a man can have his throat cut from a simple disagreement in a bar, or where people can disappear into prison for no known reason and never be seen again. But the fishermen create their own relaxation, days-long binges on tequila & Coronas with tortillas, chicken and cerviche on standby. Reggae, marijuana and non-stop banter fills the dirt huts with iguanas bumping noisily across the roof, the men emerge only to go fishing again, then spend the money on more parties on their return.

Lost at sea, Alvarenga had nothing but his 25-foot fibreglass fishing boat. He gives the reader an intriguing insight into what it’s like out there in the open ocean. Rubbish floats by constantly. In the middle of nowhere, Alvarenga rescued a barrel and small bottles to catch rainwater in to drink, shoes floated by, and bags of garbage floated 4000 miles from any landfall.

But the ocean could be mesmerizingly beautiful too – still, calm, the days tracked by the rising of the sun and watching the moon ebb, grow and flow cycle after cycle. Alvarenga describes the area as “the quietest place on earth” with a silence both eerie and bizarre. At times, Alvarenga felt a deep happiness living “without sin, without evil, just myself with no problems, no one to accuse me of anything. I was tranquil, and adapting to the ocean. This was my new life.”

Then there was terrifying action, packs of sharks circling around his boats, and the sounds of untold monsters under the sea, making massive noises and splashes through the night and sometimes emitting piercing shrieks. Alvarenga’s boat was visited by a whale shark – the world’s largest animal – floating beside him for an entire week, brushing the bottom of his boat, staring at him with a curious eye.

One method of Alvarenga’s to stay sane was to talk to the animals he saw, inventing whole stories and characters and talking for hours to keep a grip on his rapidly declining sanity. These stories became a part of his thread of hope; keeping fresh the memories of the things he wanted to live to experience again.

When you read of survival stories like this, you can’t help but put yourself into their place and wonder – could I survive this? This is a story of a man brought to the brink of death and emerging out the other side – completely traumatised and with an unimaginable tale to tell.

This book is utterly mesmerising, and I could not put it down. 438 Days is hands-down the best adventure book I’ve read all year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

438 Days- An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea
by Jonathan Franklin
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781509800186