Trad literary wisdom says that writing a novel equates with embarking on a marriage. Writing a short story is more like a one-night stand. So writing a column is a quick fumble at the staff party?

Unfair and inaccurate. It's a whole separate skill set. But from column to novel is a disaster-defying leap, so good on Joe Bennett for trying it, and good on him for doing it with much aplomb.

Christchurch has just had its second, awful quake. Richard of the title, a derelict Seddon and one-time artist, "a lover, not a fighter", is squatting with a stray mutt in the shaking, wheezing shell of a condemned hotel. Annie rushes from Britain and her good, persistent boyfriend to search for her dad (her mum couldn't care less). Old friend Vince and not-old lover Ben join in the multiple quests.

Rich meanwhile makes the hotel into a sanctuary and theatre; drinks it half-dry; accesses the past and negotiates with his pain; has entertaining exchanges with Dog Friday. Annie seeks, persists, slides through army-patrolled streets at night.

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A conventional narrative builds clearly and a bit predictably. Characters discover each others' distress and loneliness; deep-buried secrets; the ache of far-off youth and the fading of beauty. Events gather and gallop to a near-melodramatic climax, with a neatly ambivalent coda.

This is always a Joe Bennett book. There's the punchy subversion and iconoclasm, anger on behalf of the downtrodden, incipient or overt distrust of authorities. There's wit, word play, and many a bon mot, as you'd expect. There's also a tendency to the odd homily, as you'd fear. That'll be the columnist in him.

Good (as in disturbing) evocations of the smashed city will hold you. The aftermath of catastrophe, a convincingly incongruous mixture of the quotidian and terrifying, is well rendered. The aftershocks are unsettling in many ways.

Bennett is probably the most eloquent of our columnists. His verbal legerdemain is used here to often dazzling effect, though his hunt for the telling image sometimes puts brakes on the plot.

He could show us more and tell us less. Again, that'll be the columnist.

He dislikes a couple of his people so intensely, they never grow beyond caricature. But the kindness of semi-strangers warms the story, and the several riffs on love and devotion are among its real successes.

So Joe is wed. It seems to suit him, and this first novel will suit a goodly number of his readers.

King Rich
by Joe Bennett
(Fourth Estate $36.99)

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