Thursday, 30 November 2006

Overdue New Releases, Matt Johnson, 2006

OVERDUE NEW RELEASES Matt Johnson, Urban/ Longacre Press, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2006, 236 pages, paperback, NZ$29.99
ISBN 1-877361-42-9

I have never read a book that has kept me so continuously amused from the first page. When the hapless hero, Mark Penny, is confronted by a Doberman, he thinks of it as Scary McLary, working “on its first children’s book: Spot Kills Things.” A failed journalist, Mark claims to be “in the entertainment industry,” but actually scratches a living at Hysteria Video Rentals “where tradesmen come to warm up for those hidden camera shows.” Nearly 30 he is reduced to living at home. Although his Mum says he’s taking a little time out, Mark knows better, “A&D counsellors call it denial.”

The best parts are when Mark and his law student friend, Ben make forays into deepest Wellington to retrieve overdue Nintendos and X Boxes. “Who lives here then? The Hekes?” When Ben spots a Radio Pacific sticker on a mailbox he snarls, “Probably got it in a package deal with his bee pollen capsules and magnetic underlay.” These casual (but carefully crafted) cultural references are delightful not least because New Zealand readers can understand them, especially if they remember (or are trying to forget) the 1980s. Mark can still recall “Howard Morrison and someone in a monkey suit flicking Bic pens in the jungle.” Vanya, his boss at the rental store becomes The Fat Controller.

The constant witty and sometimes passionate references to movies show that Johnson made good use of his time as film reviewer for the old Dominion. In a picture theatre “a dozen people spread themselves out like triple word scores on a human scrabble set.” As a boy Mark used to see Star Wars as a vision of his future but now the vision seems empty. Why doesn’t his life have the same smooth plot as the films he is constantly watching?

The scenes in the video rental shop are like a vision of purgatory. Mark is pursued by a bore reciting Star Trek plots and another customer seeking a special version of the Lord of the Rings because he’s in it. “As what? A catering orc?” Mark and Ben retaliate by producing brief synopses for baffled customers: “It’s about this guy and these two chicks” (Dr Zhivago), “This guy who doesn’t like fake people” (Blade Runner) and “Mainly this guy and this freaky chick” (Gone with the Wind). Even a conflict with truculent skinheads ends with the humiliating revelation that one of them has The Karate Kid overdue.

Although his one-liners may seem cynical, Mark is surprisingly warm-hearted. He finds himself bonding with people sidelined by society, perhaps aware that he may yet be joining them. “The entire suburb is special needs.” His regular visits to Avery, his old teacher and footie coach, who is now in a geriatric ward, help us to understand how Mark became the person he is. While Mark may be a loser in a dead-end job, he is also capable of becoming involved with people as they are (rather than how they might be in a film script). Above all this book is a warm and funny evocation of the scruffier side of Wellington life.

Matt Johnson’s first novel is a winner. An Oscar winner, of course.

Trevor Agnew

First published in the Press, Christchurch in August 2006.