A publisher once told me a long time ago that short stories were "best left in the bottom drawer". Thankfully, Lawrence Patchett has turned that axiom on its head, abandoning a rambling novel for the form to which, based on this remarkable collection anyway, he is very well-suited. With a couple of minor exceptions, his short stories are of the longer version - indeed, he was a winner in The Long and the Short of It competition with the excellent The Road to Tokomairiro, which takes us over the saddle of this collection and out to the excellent finishing tale, the tiny, barely conceived, What Luck.
Patchett has worked hard on the graft and mechanics of writing, ensuring there is a solid foundation for his wide-ranging imagination. As a result, he manages to execute a number of contradictions seamlessly: his subjects, despite being loosely tied in the grab bag of "frontier stories", cover a range of situations, contexts and characters, yet throughout them all, pulling them together is the unique thread of his voice. His use of historical "true" figures and events (mostly) lends the stories a realism where it could be a divisive device; his imagined observations of Dick Seddon and Zane Grey are rich and colourful yet quite believable.
There's a Cormac McCarthy-esque concision to the language, and Patchett's heroes share a similar outback fortitude and silence, and a respect for the momentousness of the landscape. Economy of movement and of speech lends weight to the slightest shift in position, the quietest utterance. And his phrases are both delicious articulations of that landscape, and expertly timed and inserted: the "flick of wet manuka", "the high silence of the leaking sky". He twists words to his purpose to stunning effect.
Edward, in the exquisite My Brother's Blood, is arrested by the sight of a gathering of seals - "brownly they heaved everywhere in their hundreds".
Later, seeing his brother after many years apart, it's not his face or voice that reveals him, but "his tight, venomous movements. He was a miracle of vicious movement, a dervish of perfected violence."
There's a good sprinkling of humour throughout, too, yet it butts up against gravitas when necessary. The aforementioned Tokomairiro is a story where the two qualities are starkly contrasted, not to make light of a tragedy but to provide some slight relief from it, enabling the characters to "get through" quite literally, in this case, to a safer destination.
There are a couple of false starts and, unfortunately, they occur at the outset. Much has been made of Patchett's use of fantastic realism, but to me, the first two lengthy tales which mix time frames - they cross centuries, with figures from the past inhabiting the present/near future - that blend of the real and the imagined, became a slightly lumpy soup. I think, ultimately, I found them contrived, which, once I'd made my way past them to the glories beyond, was a word I found myself surprised to use.
Because one of Patchett's strengths is how credible and genuine these tales are, and how easily you become drawn in to occupy an empathetic seat, whether on the sinking ship the Penguin, at the Manly Baths for an endurance swim or relishing the simple joys of watching a step-son kick a rugby ball. Wonderful.
Michael Larsen is an Auckland writer.