Breton Dukes has an interesting bio. He has shifted from north to south - from Whangarei to Dunedin. He is a telephonist for a Government department and loves cookery, tenting and rabbit shooting, among other things. The latter definitely makes an appearance in his new collection of short stories, Empty Bones.
Dukes' debut, Bird North, was an edgy, economical, blokey arrival that mastered the art of concealment and revelation to a startling degree. These same strengths are a feature of the new stories and, once again, Dylan Horrocks has contributed an eye-catching cover image.
Empty Bones features a novella (around 100 pages) book-ended by a handful of shorter pieces. You will find a father and son eeling, infidelity, childbirth, death, drinking, drug-taking, food, families. Uncomfortable subject matter for some, but Dukes reveals a growing mastery of the short-story form.
He builds scenes and settings with detail that is vivid and vital. On waking up in a tent: "Leaves had fallen overnight and with the morning sun they made boat-shaped shadows on the roof." On eating the old man's food: "When he inhaled, rich, meat air gusted his lungs." On coming across an intruder: "When he turned his small feet made kissing sounds on the wooden floor." This is surprising, delightful detail, where words and syntax have a pleasing elasticity.
Dukes' characters aren't always likeable. Empty Bones sees a father bring his adult offspring to the family bach to meet his rejuvenated self (facelift, swapped the boat for gym equipment).
The story is a portrait of the messiness of life, and in particular, the messiness of family relations. There are connections but, added to that, there are the misconnections. Yet the characters are complex and draw mixed responses, from distaste to sympathy to bemusement.
What I really love about Dukes' writing is the way he manages what is said alongside what is not said. This creates an addictive sense of unease, the unpredictability of what might happen next, the ambiguity of character and the pockets of intense atmosphere. It might turn off readers who like stories handed to them on a plate, but I liked navigating the staccato narrative, the jump cuts, the momentary floundering as I tried to match the pieces to figure out what was going on. I am not sure I always did, but that didn't matter, as these stories can easily take a second reading.
Empty Bones is like an onion - simple to the eye at first glance but extraordinarily layered within such a small package.
The stories have the ability to be acutely pungent, bitter almost, but also offer sweet insights into the panorama of human experience. Dukes knows exactly how to bring that wide stretch of humanity to the sharpest detail of an event, an individual, a discovery. Comforting, yet discomfiting.
Empty Bones and Other Stories by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press $30)