Looking at New Zealand through the eyes of Steve Braunias is a bit like strolling through a familiar bit of landscape with a birdwatcher. You will barely have registered a flicker of movement. "Look!" he'll cry. "A tit!"
"A tomtit. Pity you missed it. And look! Over there!"
And it's not just the power to observe. He also has an unmatched talent for taxidermy, the ability to capture from the wild, dissect with his scalpel-sharp wit and pinion there, true to life, on the page. Anyone can mock, but it takes some kind of greatness of soul to keep compassion always there at hand. Look at the sad creatures who populate his wonderful recent collection of essays, Civilisation - how sharply defined, and how gently handled.
So it is here. Braunias' swan-song from his writing gig at Metro (that magazine's loss is the Herald's gain) was the diary he kept of the last 15 days of that bizarre 2014 election campaign, the grand old ritual of the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy reimagined for the Minecraft generation. It's doubtful any other journalist working in New Zealand could have captured it so clearly, dealt with the personalities so fairly.
The prose, as he reminds us several times, has been inspired by the great Americans, especially Norman Mailer, but not excluding Hunter S. Thompson. It's literate, lively, hilarious and luminous - a positive joy to read. And of course, it's not just style over substance.
Braunias isn't the follower of any kind of fashion. He is fearless, and doesn't care whom he offends (he rates his fellow journos according to their "brown-nose factor" - the extent to which they court the favour of John Key; he describes senior Queen's Counsel, John Billington, as a "pink-faced dullard"). But the genius of his writing is that he gives you the benefit of his reaction to people on every channel.
This makes for surprises. You sense his sympathies are with the Left, but he's as capable of being disgusted by the Left as he is by those he so clearly despises on the Right - he can't abide Judith Collins, but nor is he in the slightest bit impressed by the American spybuster rung in by Kim Dotcom, Glenn Greenwald: "Glenn! Your f***en massive ego is showing, bro."
He really likes Don Brash, but not the "hollow men" shown to be behind and around him during the 2005 election campaign. He likes Nicky Hager, too - takes him to lunch, interviews him and gets him to address the journalism class he teaches - but faithfully records how awkward the questions about journalistic ethics get in that class. "Give the Greens a problem," he memorably writes, "and they will ... come up with numerous suggested solutions, many of them brilliant, some of them practical; give them a f***ing ukulele and they lost their minds."
He excoriates Jamie Whyte with a description of a meeting of the Act Party at the Tamaki Yacht Club attended by just 11 people at the same time his heart bleeds for him. He has even found Cameron Slater good company in the past.
Perhaps the highlight is Campaign Diary: 3 Days To Go, in which he captures the whole weird world of Colin Craig in as few as 2000 words, a masterpiece of economical exposition every bit as deft as Joshua Drummond's fantastic Relaxed painting of John Key that graces the cover of this petite volume. Given we got (yet again) the Government we deserve, something good had to come out of the 2014 election. Here it is.
• John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.
Madmen: Inside the Weirdest Election Campaign Ever by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Press $20) Reviewed by John McCrystal