A middle-aged cop hides behind a couch in a woolshed, fighting a swollen bladder and the fear of discovery. A young New Zealand woman, lonely in New York, goes along with a mistaken identity. A boy gets an incomplete tattoo from an inmate in a Samoan jail; a gay man in Italy assuages his panic with a pair of new shoes; a woman searches the flax bushes outside Te Papa for signs of rough sleeping.
From Janet Frame to Dominic Hoey, from Amelia Batistich to Lloyd Jones, from Peter Wells to Elsie Uini, the stories in The Penguin New Zealand Anthology, 50 stories for 50 years in Aotearoa are rich in intrigue and uncertainty, revealing all the fleeting intimacy, the open-ended provisionality, that distinguishes the short story from the tell-all novel.
Beginning in 1973, the year Penguin began publishing New Zealand titles, the earlier stories, as expected, exude a downbeat realism, bristling with gritty masculinity in shabby coats and beery breath.
Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s relentless ‘Cross my heart and cut my throat’ carries all the driving menace of his first novel The Scarecrow, published a decade earlier in 1963. Here is the overcoat, thrown over the pyjamas of a hungover guitar teacher gawking at his student’s ‘badly laddered black stockings’. Vincent O’Sullivan’s ‘Grove,’ featured in Landfall five years before his first collection of short stories in 1978, is a masterful portrait of the understated, anxious surveillance of the taciturn, disfigured Grove.
Maurice Gee’s ‘Buried Treasures, Old Bones’ is a fine story of festering violence and thwarted sexuality, overshadowed by the looming Taranaki landscape: ‘The mountain turned slowly on her left as she walked. Its beetle shape crawled behind the houses’. Compared to these stories, ‘Making Father Pay’ by Frank Sargeson, the apparent progenitor of this tradition, is one of the few missteps in this collection, snagging on a kind of sneering, authorial propriety.
But the book’s strength is its inclusion of an often-overlooked early lyricism. The first story, Patricia Grace’s ‘And so I go’, is a poignant farewell by a young man leaving his land and whanau: ‘This land is mine, this sea, these people. Here I give love and am loved but I must go’. First published in Te Ao Hou in 1973, it is a haunting lament to family, land and sea.
Published 50 years later, the last story in this collection, ‘How to Get Fired’ by Evana Belich, is a poignant bookend to Grace’s tender farewell. It describes a young caregiver in a rest home, helping an elderly resident revisit her old family home. The ‘wee trip down memory lane without a whole busload of Michael-Rowing-Your-Boat’, puts the young woman’s job on the line but it is a small victory for humanity, for kindness.
In her foreword, Harriet Allan, former fiction publisher at Penguin Random House, cuts to the chase. There is no expounding on the place of short fiction in New Zealand writing, no stated criteria as to what made the cut and what didn’t.
This breezy approach is evident in the book itself. Its hard cover is bright and cheery (the colours reflect those used in Penguin series); for a 470-page anthology it is surprisingly light. But it may also define Allan’s successful 30-plus years working with writers both new and experienced. Amongst the many voices decrying her redundancy in August this year was that of Barbara Else. As she wrote for Newsroom’s ReadingRoom, ‘I doubt that Harriet Allan has ever sung her own praises. Her authors, friends and colleagues must do it for her and it could be a long, loud song indeed.”
This book is a long, loud song for a strong and evolving tradition. From the 1980s, we see more women characters, more woman writers, more stories of infidelity, marital disharmony and domestic violence.
Fiona Farrell’s 1987 story ‘Footnote’ plots a parallel path of infidelity between her modern day protagonist and her ancestor Jane Kendall, wife of colonial JP Thomas Kendall. Fiona Kidman, Marilyn Duckworth, Norman Bilbrough and Alice Tawhai tells stories of relationship instability, tension and unfaithfulness: ‘I guess you just left it all too late,’ says the smug interloper in Sue McCauley’s taut story ‘Said Linda’. ‘By the time you started taking a pride in yourself the marriage was already dead.’
In Shonagh Koea’s 1993 story ‘The Widow’, the sweaty lechery of the broker is expertly portrayed in his purchase of a shepherdess figurine: ‘Their tiny porcelain hands broke easily in his grip as he removed the figurines from his china cabinet each evening for fondling, crushing the flowers on their bodies and pantaloons’.
The book also includes some of the earliest challenges to New Zealand’s long-standing literary homogeneity. Witi Ihimaera’s 1977 ‘The Seahorse and the Reef’ is a prescient call to protect our waters (environmental concerns do not appear again until Tina Makereti’s urgent 2012 story ‘Taonga’). Set in Samoa, Albert Wendt’s beautifully written ‘The Cross of Soot’ (1974) is a quiet, mysterious tale of friendship and trust.
Others go further afield. CK Stead ties his characters into a tight knot of academic manoeuvring in New Jersey. The conversational intimacy of Paula Morris’ characters returns them to a shared past in post-Katrina New Orleans. Sarah Laing’s ‘The Wrong Shoe’ is a conjectural tale of mistaken identity and human connection in New York.
Back in Aotearoa, the protagonists are getting younger. Sarah Quigley’s teenagers in ‘having words with you’ are pitch-perfect in their on-again off-again alliances. Tze Ming Mok’s On Chesil Beach-like dating disaster ‘No Shadow Kick’ tips school girl embarrassment into easy racism (a redaction in the story shows where, during printing, the book came under China’s new security law).
James George’s finely crafted, fable-like ‘Walking to Laetoli’ links million-year-old footprints in Africa to modern-day father-son relationships wrecked on the rocks of career advancement and the ever-refused ‘Saturday can we…?’ Under the hard glare of a suburban garage light, Carl Nixon show the subtle but irredeemable shift as the son surpasses the father in the evening weight lifting routine.
Increasingly, the city becomes bigger, darker, tougher. In ‘The Feijoa is Brother to the Guava’ David Eggleton tracks his streetwise night walker on a familiar passage across Auckland, washing up alongside the ‘wry-mouthed coin-spinners’ at the casino, ‘hands that clutch at buttons, hands out on the ran-tan.’ The writing is rich and rhythmic, pacing to the sounds of his character’s steps. In Ben Brown’s excellent ‘Graffiti’, 15-year-old Tag Dog, brimming with artistic audacity and burning hope, encounters the clench-jawed face of so-called ‘zero-tolerance’.
In ‘Home’, one of the seven Sunday Star-Times short story competition winners featured here, Bernard Steeds’ youthful characters find refuge from homelessness and transphobia in a rocky shore, wet sand, love and understanding: ‘If we told our story it would not be pretty, it would not be nice, so we do not tell our story, we do not share the anger the bruises the words that hurt… we stay in the now of it.’
The stories get taller, the plot-twists tighter. Sue Orr’s ‘Etiquette for a Dinner Party’ takes a Mrs Dalloway-style premise to a disastrous end. Charlotte Grimshaw leads the elderly victim of burglary to a liberating epiphany; an imaginary childhood friend offers solace in Craig Cliff’s gentle ‘Seeds’; alien pioneers confront NIMBY-ist discrimination in Tim Jones’ strangely convincing ‘The New Neighbours’.
A GPS tracker of this book would begin in rural New Zealand, move to Auckland to Wellington then back to Auckland (Te Wai Pounamu barely gets a look in). But as a compilation of writers associated with Penguin it presents a free-ranging arc of half a century of writing, swinging from hard-yakker reality to hope, from city to sea, from grey conformity to something lighter, more inclusive.