Book Review: Sweet As

By Peter Calder

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Sweet As: Journeys In A New Zealand Summer by Garth Cartwright
Allen & Unwin $39.99

Book cover of Sweet As: Journeys In A New Zealand Summer. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Sweet As: Journeys In A New Zealand Summer. Photo / Supplied

Towards the end of his rambling diary of a road trip through his native country, Garth Cartwright engages in a sly piece of critic-proofing sophistry.

"There will inevitably be complaints about this book from certain peeved Kiwis," he predicts, before going on to lament New Zealand's "lack of a strong critical culture".

He is specifically anticipating objections to his casual dissing of Colin McCahon and to his suggestion that "building new rugby stadiums" is one of the "emblems of our national identity".

For the record, I didn't feel much peeved by either of those matters - though I can't help thinking that it would be easier to sustain the argument that it is our failure to build a new rugby stadium on the waterfront that was partly emblematic of our national identity. I would also have wished for some semblance of a cogent argument about McCahon's inadequacy as an artist.

Such bald assertions that he was "a poor painter" of "sloppy abstractions often featuring scrawled biblical verse" do not seem, at first blush, evidence of great analytical muscle.

But perhaps I can do my bit to disabuse him of the notion that we are all shy of venturing a critical view.

To deal with the detail before addressing the book's wider failures: its jawdropping sloppiness must raise questions about the competence of its publisher as well as its writer. There is scarcely a paragraph in it that I did not ache to take a sub-editor's blue pencil to, either because it was infelicitous, illogical, syntactically flawed or just wrong-headed. The abject idiocy of the single sentence "all the [Maori] kids, even those at Maori language schools, listen to pop radio" would take five minutes to disentangle, yet it is typical of the bland, offhand and empty-headed observations that litter this extraordinarily irritating travelogue.

By comparison, the myriad solecisms of punctuation seem scarcely worth noting, although anyone with an internet connection should be able to spell Gollum, Monteith's, Moahunters and elephantiasis and know that Pat Hanly died of Huntington's (not the non-existent Hodgkinson's) disease. Either a writer or his editor should know the meaning of "avail", "fulsome", "baubles", "transhumance" and a hundred other words that Cartwright uses wrongly. And that big thing in Auckland isn't called the Sky Needle.

Above and beyond these matters, it is rather hard to work out what the hell the book is trying to achieve. London-based for 20 years, Cartwright returns to New Zealand and takes a road trip from Kawakawa to Dunedin, dropping in on old mates and purporting to offer readers the benefit of his fresh perspective.

Yet it's never plain who his target audience is: he makes observations - defining petrolhead, for example - that are unnecessary for a New Zealand reader, and sneers at the colonies for liking Cliff Richard (is the Bachelor Boy forgotten in Britain, then?). Meanwhile, mentioning kohanga reo without defining it for another 100 pages seems likely to confuse English readers as does the untranslated (and ungrammatical) "ka pai kai moana" which, laughably, Cartwright applies to freshwater eel.

Gradually it becomes plain that this book is actually a sustained exercise in self-aggrandisement. Every couple of pages or so he digresses into interviews he's conducted with blues greats or places he's been that are much better than this.

Certainly, for the work of a man who has lived abroad for 20 years, it is dispiritingly devoid of intelligently reflective insight - though on page 289 he notes that prices have gone up and the rich-poor gap has widened since he was last here.

But much of the time, Cartwright seems at pains to impress us with how goddamn cool he is. He tells us early on that "certain UK reviewers" of his "narrative non-fiction epics" have given him the nickname "Hard Travellin" and sighs that New Zealand was never going to stretch him as a writer the way the Balkans and the US-Mexican border have. Meanwhile, Rotorua puts him in mind of Yellowstone National Park and we are reminded every few pages that Cartwright and Tony Fomison were very, very tight.

In short, this is a book that gives you the uncomfortable feeling of being stuck in the kitchen at a party and condescended to by a self-regarding bore.

As Cartwright might have said, I left my copy in a rubbish bin in a cheap Istanbul hotel.

Peter Calder is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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