Bird North And Other Stories by Breton Dukes
Victoria University Press $35
The blurb on the back of Breton Dukes' début short-story collection, Bird North And Other Stories, adds him to an esteemed line of New Zealand exponents of the genre: Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan and Owen Marshall. These are writers who make the lives of men central to their stories.
Once I got past the inspired cover by Dylan Horrocks, I stalled on the question - would the stories earn Dukes a spot in such a line-up?
The answer is, yes. In the main, Dukes' stories are short and gripping, concise yet succulent. The sentences are plain. There are blokey jokes and language (I cringed at a few points, I must admit). There are dark edges and twisty turns. Yet he delivers characters who rise above male stereotypes and make people complex and intriguing.
A young man, newly in love, watches an Argentine prepare mashed potatoes with finely chopped parsley in a holiday-park kitchen. It sounds corny to come away with the notion that you can't live on love alone, but this idea ticks beneath the surface of a story that is a little gem. It works perfectly.
There is a hospital orderly who entertains the patients but gets into trouble for "malingering". There is the creative response to a mother's absence (she has gone to the moon). Another story features a university student carrying out various challenges at a two-day seminar to get a job in an emergency call centre (it had never occurred to me you would need certain personality traits to process 111 calls).
Dukes' work experience (kitchens, bars, call centres, language schools, factories, hospitals and so on) is no doubt responsible for the detail you find in the stories. When he takes you into a call centre, a hospital or the ocean, the selective detail feels utterly believable.
If the work experience is wide ranging, so is the emotional page upon which Dukes writes, including the stereotype of the male hunger for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll taken to different extremes (this is not only the territory of men), but there are also other hungers - for food, love, the ocean, a particular view, friendship.
Out of these contrasting hungers you get stories that involve beginnings and endings, care, courtship and self-doubt.
I particularly loved the way water keeps making an appearance, as the ocean, but also as swimming pools, hot or cold. It is clearly a love of the author, but water also paves the way for musings on dangers, recreation, crossings and male bonding.
Some of the stories lacked the magic zest of others. For some reason I got stuck on Sand. Perhaps the subject matter (youthful self-indulgence) did not interest me, but the characters never seemed to matter.
On the other hand, Dukes is a master of the short-story gap. He seems to know to within a millimetre what to reveal (or not) and manages the unspoken beautifully.
I don't want to give any examples, as that would wreck the reading experience, but it is what elevates the stories to something special.
There is often an extra gap to reach the ending, which is frequently unpredictable - in a good way.
Read the stories and navigate the gaps yourself.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.