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By the mid-1960s Ronald Hugh Morrieson had written two of New Zealand's finest comic novels, The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, but in the aftermath of their publication he had surprisingly little to show in return for his achievements. His novels were treated in his own country with what the critic Peter Simpson, in the only major study of Morrieson's oeuvre so far, has described as 'amused condescension'.(1) Morrieson might have been forgiven for despairing of his prospects. He was living, still unmarried, with his mother and aunt in his childhood home at 1 Regent Street in the small Taranaki town of Hawera. In order to write he had retired from a raffish career as a musician, playing in local dance bands--this had been a mode of life so carefree and fun that it is not hard to imagine why he preferred it to regular work, or even to the often-beleaguered internal exile lived by other writers in the main centres. Morrieson was cut off from whatever slim literary support was available for him in the provinces. He had a soiled reputation in a community where the appearance of respectability was everything. Increasingly, it was alcohol that helped to get him through, and then he started work on a third novel. But comedy is the unlucky path in New Zealand fiction.
Morrieson had published his first book, The Scarecrow, with Angus & Robertson in Sydney in 1963, and it was an auspicious debut for a brilliantly unconventional writer. The Scarecrow was most likely the product of years of trial and thought, a superb pastiche constructed to display a jazz-like virtuosity at all levels of the narrative, even down to the most remarkably playful and inventive use of language. It is the story of young Neddy Poindexter's much-imperilled growth to manhood, and the expulsion of the scarecrow-like figure of Salter the Sensational, the embodiment of evil, from Neddy's life and from his town. On its publication the book was praised in Australia and even in Britain, but in New Zealand its reception was decidedly lukewarm. The Scarecrow seemed too racy, too exciting, for local consumption, as the New Zealand literary scene has always felt at its most secure when its high art offers up a bracing sense of boredom. Ever since the book's appearance critics have been troubled by its sexual content, despite the novel's largely conservative approach to adolescent sexual development.(2) Morality must have its place in the evaluation of literature, but a little morality can go a long way. New Zealand's censorious puritanism has changed its form over time but it has never really disappeared, and its uncomfortable persistence is well captured by Peter Bland at the close of his poem 'Remembering the Fifties--Hutt Valley'.
is what we most fear. It keeps
pushing through our pants and corsets
pretending to be real. Each day
totters by on new high-heels
with seams aligned and smoke-stained fingers.
The light, it has to be said, is dazzling...(3)
Morrieson's sexy novel has often been reprinted, but it has mostly remained marginalised from the literary mainstream.
Morrieson then published his second comic novel, Came a Hot Friday, in 1964, also with Angus & Robertson. Little is known of Morrieson's inner life or work habits, but because this new book came into print just one year after The Scarecrow it seems reasonable to deduce that Came a Hot Friday was written more quickly than Morrieson's debut work. Certainly, Came a Hot Friday is a simpler and more accessible novel than The Scarecrow, and it makes excellent use of a more accessible form of virtuosity, namely the intricacies of farce. The book's title suggests the opening of a popular song or ballad, and the novel concentrates on some riotous events over one anarchic weekend in the life of Don Jackson and his rural community, when gambling, grifting, drunkenness, sex, violence and high-speed driving are set free of restraints so that the times are well and truly out of joint. The story is not so much carnivalesque as an elaborate pastiche of carnivalesque--if such a thing is technically possible--in the same fashion that The Scarecrow was conceived and written as a fantastic pastiche of pulp fiction. Morrieson has self-consciously assembled the items of carnival and is even, on occasions, prepared to make fun of its literary conventions. The novel opens with its omniscient narrator almost immediately breaking into his own story in order to beg the elderly Pop Simon not to turn out the electric light in his rented room above the local billiard saloon, because this is the small but fateful act that will set the hectic events of the book in motion. Similarly, the novel ends with its focus on its unlikely but wonderfully convincing deus ex machina, the hubristic and half-crazy Te Whakinga Kid, who has managed to set everything back in order. At the book's close the Te Whakinga Kid scrambles up a slope beside the Apuna River to get away from what, to him, appears to be a real god, the local taniwha. In reality this is a burning woolshed fallen onto the waters, the smouldering leftovers from the Te Whakinga Kid's own tidying up of the story's plot.
Even though it was shorn of the disturbing sexual content of The Scarecrow, Came a Hot Friday--with its rollicking, expansive qualities--still seemed more suited to fiction west of the Tasman Sea, in Australia, than to the east. The novel received the same sort of mixed reviews as its predecessor. Worse, when it failed to sell in any special quantity, it was deemed something of a failure at home in New Zealand.(4) The fact that almost all Australasian literary works of that era were commercial failures never seemed germane. Since the New Zealand literary establishment has long preferred the sort of novel which is nice in form but anaemic in content--and which disappears later in shifts of fashion--it has tended to regard serious writing as too good to sell. But Morrieson's comic novels were to be assessed solely by the standards of popular fiction, without the mitigating claim of gravitas. It is undoubtedly true that, in a manner unusual for a literary novel of any kind during this period, the majority of the characters in Came a Hot Friday are cartoonish, but the novel has passed the first, and hardest, test of literary merit: it has lasted. Indeed, the cartoonish quality of the characters is why the gloriously ridiculous Te Whakinga Kid does not seem in the least out of place in the book. Rather, the novel seems to stray furthest from its brief when exploring the drama in the relationship between Don Jackson and his father, and Morrieson, perhaps wisely, keeps this within the boundaries of a somewhat hackneyed (and somewhat cartoonish) sentimentality. The naive and foolish Don Jackson is the nearest the riotous novel comes to having a hero, but every character in the novel is somehow either corrupt or enfeebled. This feature may have provided Morrieson with the germ for his third book, when he duly started writing it.
The third novel was to become Predicament, and at length an early draft, entitled 'Is X Real?', was rejected by Angus & Robertson, Morrieson's Australian publishers. Morrieson then struggled with rewriting the work for years, and it went through several versions and was rejected by other publishers even as his health declined. In a letter to Maurice Shadbolt in 1970 Morrieson noted of his new work that: 'it is most important to me that it sees the yell of day'.(5) Nevertheless, he was to die of cirrhosis of the liver in 1972, aged 50, with the book still unpublished. Predicament did not appear in print until 1975, when it was brought out by the Dunmore Press in Palmerston North, soon to be followed in 1976 by Pallet on the Floor, Morrieson's small final novel.(6) At first Predicament received a few good reviews, notably from Kevin Cunningham in Islands and Michael Volkerling in the Listener, and it was filmed as recently as 2010, but from the beginning it has always been known as the book that failed to follow up on the successes of The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, such as those successes were.(7) When reviewing Predicament in the majestic pages of Landfall, R.A. Copland described the book as 'sprightly and sturdily unimportant'.(8) In the authoritative Oxford History of New Zealand Literature Lawrence Jones dismisses the novel as 'a "boys' own" narrative romp with gothic overtones'.(9) Predicament has remained, as Simpson suggested in his 1982 study, 'the problem child among Morrieson's novels'.(10)
Having mastered all the necessary aspects of his craft, a writer needs to push ahead into new territory if he is going to continue to develop, and Predicament is in many ways a transitional work. This may be one reason why the novel always seemed so important to Morrieson as he struggled to prefect it. In comparison to his previous works, the comic vision of Predicament has darkened to approach social satire. Therefore it is not entirely unfair to say that, having written two essentially ludic novels of the type which would become much more fashionable in New Zealand nearly two decades later, Morrieson began to develop in a direction opposite to the prevailing literary trends. Predicament is the story of 15-year-old Cedric Williamson, a bookish and isolated only child suffering through adolescence in an unnamed 'small town' in New Zealand. Typically of the care that Morrieson takes over time references in his books, the action is specified as taking place within a few weeks from December 1935 to January 1936.(11) Cedric attends the local Technical High School and lives with Granny, his grandmother, and Martin Williamson, his father. His mother has died some years before and is mentioned only fleetingly in the story.
The Williamson family owns 'a big house at the end of the main street right where people coming in couldn't miss it', a house occasionally referred to as 'the Williamson mansion'. This grand affair belongs to Granny, who is the widow of General Arnold Williamson, 'a general of Her Majesty Queen Victoria and subsequent monarchs', but the house is all that remains of the family's fortune. The Williamson family has, in fact, fallen into steep decline. This is due partly to the incapacity of Martin Williamson, who has suffered financial setbacks and then had a bad accident while working as a master builder. Consequently, his mental health has failed and he has 'slipped away into a world of make-believe'. But the decline of the Williamsons is also due to a swindle perpetrated two years before the story's start by Vernon Bramwell, a wealthy lawyer. Acting in cahoots with Vic Prout, the town's Mayor, Bramwell manipulated Granny into signing away the family's remaining hundred acres of land for a pittance. Thus, although still the 'Williamson name was well respected', Cedric and his family have become declasse and now exist somewhere between the upper and lower strata of the town's society.
Cedric's situation in Predicament--his living between social classes--is significant, for Morrieson's novel divides the town into two halves: the respectable world of characters like Vernon and Blair Bramwell, Margot Bramwell, Vic Prout, Ernie Fox and Maybelle Zimmerman; and the 'common' underworld of characters like Stanley and Mervyn Toebeck, the Spook (Fred Haunt), Winker (Ned Sanderson), 'Snip' Hughes and Madame (Rita) Zombroni. Morrieson emphasises this class division everywhere throughout Predicament, in a distinct change of approach from the social mobility on display in his previous books. Even the town itself in Predicament appears to have a good side and a bad side, so that the run-down Grant's Fields area near the mill can be briefly described as 'a typical "across the tracks" settlement'. The bad side of town is particularly epitomised by Burton Street, where 'it was essential to be low as well as broke'.
The things that characters own in the novel--their houses, their clothes and their cars--all serve to indicate which side of the social divide they occupy. Thus, when Cedric first meets Mervyn Toebeck and, out of loneliness, becomes Mervyn's friend, Cedric finds the old Toebeck house so broken down that he does not want to go inside. In the drama that soon follows, as Mervyn Toebeck pushes his way in through the front door of the house in an attempt to rescue his father, Cedric cannot help noticing that the door handle is 'totally riddled with borer holes'. In contrast, the new Bramwell house across the gully from Cedric's home, which looks down on the suburb Vernon Bramwell is creating with land stolen from the Williamson family, seems to mock and infuriate Cedric with its obvious wealth. When Mervyn Toebeck is staying with the Williamson family, he is encouraged by Granny to appear more presentable for his father's funeral by donning Martin Williamson's 'black suit coat', and Mervyn later cements his presence in the Williamson household by means of extravagant Christmas gifts that he has secretly obtained by shoplifting. The prostitute Madame Zombroni, in addition to resembling a hideous witch, has her status defined by the clothes she owns. She wears 'an ancient brown costume that only reached her knobs of knees' and a black straw hat from which the price tag vulgarly obtrudes.
For the upper stratum of the town, ownership of material goods is linked to a respectable appearance--and the appearance of respectability is what matters above all else. Certainly, it is just this emphasis on appearances that allows Ernie Fox, with his lust still unconsummated, and Maybelle Zimmerman, with her virginity still intact, to begin the novel on the town's socially 'good' side. But since appearance counts for more than fact, respectability can always be bought, and so Margot Bramwell, who has managed to marry her way out of 'her torrid past, her slum home', feels that 'by some miracle, she had become a different person'. Margot is thus able to support her new status, both in the eyes of the town and in her own mind, through the outward display of material success: 'a luxury bedroom with its own dressing room and shower, a forty-by-thirty lounge equipped with a grand piano and a semi-circular bar; a maid, a cook and a gardener to call her "Madam"; a cheque book to use within reason and no questions asked; an open sesame to the Pioneer Club, the best homes in the town and the most exclusive circles of the racing world'. In addition, Margot often appears in the novel driving her smart 'silver-grey two-seater Alvis', another emblem of her success, just as Blair Bramwell is introduced to the reader through his spectacular 'maroon Auburn roadster'.(12)
Morrieson's penchant for fine automobiles is well employed in Predicament to pinpoint social status. Thus, Blair Bramwell never seems far away from his flashy Auburn. Having murdered the Spook towards the end of the novel, he is identified when burying the body because of his conspicuous, 'very expensive American car'. It is when Blair Bramwell sells his beloved car that Detective Huggins understands Blair is being blackmailed. The nuances of characters' identities are always consistent with their vehicles. The Salvation Army preacher who presides over the funeral of Mervyn Toebeck's father, for example, is noted as driving a stolid but respectable 'Essex Super Six'. Vernon Bramwell drives an expensive though otherwise unremarkable and bland Buick. Mervyn Toebeck, in contrast, runs illicit alcohol out to the Aranga Viaduct in Winker's unlovely but powerful Nash, which Morrieson cannot resist appraising as 'ten years old but still a good car mechanically'.
The type of speech that characters use also acts as a social indicator. Granny, as the head of the Williamson family, speaks throughout the book with a carefully measured formality that is almost new in Morrieson's novels. At 'Snip' Hughes's seedy billiard parlour Cedric observes that the snooker players use language which 'would have startled the driver of a bullock team'. One exception is a much better-spoken player at the top table, but he is quickly noted as being shabbily 'dressed in sandals, khaki shorts and open-necked shirt'.(13) 'Snip' Hughes himself momentarily confuses Cedric because of his flashy attire. As a successful criminal, he sports 'the trousers and waistcoat of a dark striped suit', together with a stiff white collar, silver garters on the elbows of his sleeves and a green eye-shade. At first glance, then, 'Snip' Hughes's possessions do not appear to match his social position. His lower-class status is usefully confirmed, however, when he misses a shot and curses with the memorably colourful obscenity, 'Well, cut off my penis and call me Venus'.
Cedric's snobbishness is part and parcel of the novel's emphasis on class. On first encountering Mervyn Toebeck, Cedric 'automatically classified him as "common"', and he is priggishly disturbed by Mervyn's use of the word 'fugginsight'. In fact, Mervyn proceeds to use the word 'fuckin'' on a later occasion in the book, and Cedric himself, albeit heavily under Mervyn's influence, later uses bad language such as 'Dirty lotta shits' or 'that fat poufter, old Vernon Bramwell'. (It is notable that Predicament has by far the most profane language of all of Morrieson's novels, and such profanities seem consciously included by Morrieson as an indictment of each character's ugly mentality, whether the character is socially low or has slipped into a temporarily vulgar state.) During Christmas-eve shopping Cedric is grateful to have Mervyn Toebeck along as a friend but he is also snobbishly embarrassed to be seen with Mervyn in public, since 'After all he was a general's grandson'. Cedric is always conscious of his family's former glory; his name even appears to owe something to Cedric Errol, the son of gentry in Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1886 children's classic, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Morrieson has Mervyn Toebeck pointedly refer to this connection with Burnett's tale in chapter 63. When Mervyn joins the Williamson family for Christmas, Cedric falls into a dinnertime reverie where his snobbery reaches its height, matched only by the scale of his illusions about the world around him.
Not even the slack colonial attire of the menfolk, which unfortunately included Mervyn's check shirt, distracted much from the atmosphere of haut monde. Invisible servants seemed to wait in the wings. Cedric felt a sudden hunger for the wealth and the power necessary to maintain such a standard of living. He ate in silence for some time, fiercely resolved to wave a golden wand over the house of Williamson. [...] Mervyn, thought Cedric, may not be out of the top drawer but he is certainly a young man with bright ideas. He knew how to act on them too. That the poor chap had never dined before in such splendid style was a certainty.[67-8]
Cedric never completely relinquishes his snobbishness throughout the novel. This is partly because Morrieson requires the town's division into social classes to remain constant--present always, even in the protagonist's mind--for his own thematic purposes. The only exception comes when, acknowledging to himself that Mervyn Toebeck has probably killed his own father, Cedric at last understands the true purport of the interrogation which the police had put him through near the start of the story. He sees that the police's line of questioning involved more than he had noticed 'in his smug self-importance'. But even towards the end of the book, when being questioned again by the police, Cedric relaxes his guard after Detective Huggins pointedly refers to Mervyn Toebeck as 'common'. Cedric immediately becomes 'anxious to impress the detective with just how respectable and law-abiding a citizen he was' and then blurts out a secret, that he saw Mervyn Toebeck burying coins in the Williamson family's meadow.
Significantly, whatever their outward appearance may amount to, almost all of the principal characters in both halves of the town's society are morally corrupt. Those who inhabit what appears to be the town's respectable stratum are manifestly no better than those of its underworld. Morrieson packs his novel with examples, but takes especial care to show that corruption pervades the better, respectable class. A conspiracy of the town's elite defrauds Granny of her land, but even the small payment eventually made to her is further halved by 'Surveyor's fees and legal expenses'. The streets of the new housing development which swallow up the land are named after the town's 'influential and prosperous men' who are all interconnected through marriage to the wealthy Dale family. Even the Grant family, which owns Grant's Mill, has succeeded because it had 'in the very early days, wangled some sort of monopoly'. As Mervyn Toebeck puts it, in own his case for taking what he can from the town, 'It's dog eats dog in this world'. Indeed, one of the reasons why both Mervyn and Cedric initially believe that blackmailing the Bramwells may be possible is because of the ubiquity of the town's moral decay.
Hypocrisy serves to compound the issue. The town, as Mervyn Toebeck complains, has no cat-house, and yet promiscuity is rampant. Margot Bramwell has married a much older man for money and is unfaithful to her husband with her own stepson. Ernie Fox and the underage Maybelle Zimmerman pursue an unlawful sexual connection. While sleeping in the town's domain, the Spook witnesses: 'Men with other guys' wives and all sorts'. Even the revolting Madame Zombroni manages to eke out a living as a whore. Other vices are tainted with hypocrisy as well. Everybody on both sides of the social divide drinks liquor as a matter of course, yet the town is technically a dry, 'no-licence district'. The wood alcohol which 'Snip' Hughes and his confederates sell to the lower section of society is in itself corrupt: it is a crudely made drink which can cause blindness and even death. Within this atmosphere of hypocrisy it is perhaps no surprise that the arch-religious Fanthorpe is presented in chapter 87 as a man who complacently attempts to sublimate his sexual desires into prayer, but Morrieson cannot resist going further and having his character suspiciously eager to pocket two shillings offered him by Detective Sergeant Huggins. Even Detective Huggins himself, a rare example of moral probity outside of the Williamson family, backslides over his longstanding decision to give up smoking. The very cliches of small-town life are occasionally exposed and subverted as mere hypocrisies. Thus, Cedric remembers once stealing a few applies from a local orchard with a friend named Tomblinson, a common and harmless rural rite of passage, until the event is interrupted by a gang of local boys who attempt 'to strip the trees bare' and who indulge in the criminal vandalism of a greenhouse.
In addition, the insertion by Morrieson of Martin Williamson's almost incredible tower into the story exposes the cruelty underlying the corruption and hypocrisy of the town. Indeed, an early draft of the story appears to have been entitled 'The Tower'.(14) Cedric's father has been constructing a wooden tower for two years on the family's front lawn, and by the novel's start the edifice is seven and a half storeys high. Critics have often been tempted to see the tower as a symbol. Peter Simpson, for example, emphasises the tower's phallic appearance as part of Predicament's sexual dynamic and also notes in passing that for Cedric it may indicate 'the public odium and alienation of his situation' and even something of a 'retreat into fantasy'.(15) Morrieson himself cannot help commenting in the novel that, to Cedric at least, the tower 'seemed symbolic of a simple decency: a sad thing but intrinsically virtuous'. However, it is not the tower itself, but the reaction of the townspeople to Martin Williamson's harmlessly eccentric project which is significant. Far from celebrating any charm, any sense of aspiration or any form of ingenuity in the tower's steady rise, the townsfolk 'used to stop and back up their cars and laugh until water ran down their cheeks and, on some not entirely authenticated occasions, down their legs'. The reaction of the town is uniformly disdainful and uncouth. The tower incites 'the jeers of the curious, the scowls of the inspector and the complaints of neighbours'. Even Cedric himself believes, partly as a result of pressure from his peers, that in constructing the tower his 'papa was a screwball'.
Thus, if the tower symbolises anything, it embodies first and foremost the intolerance of a conformist community towards any sort of creativity or difference: a type of cruel intolerance that Morrieson was all too familiar with in his own life. Furthermore, this strain of cruelty is so pervasive and deep that it extends even to those connected to the tower only by association. Granny no longer feels able to attend church because of fear of public ridicule, and so she has not gone 'anywhere away from home of late'. Cedric is tormented by the rest of the town's youth with the nickname 'Pisa' (along with the slightly more acceptable nickname 'Professor'), until he feels that he has become 'a misfit and an outcast' and even 'a freak'. That the town may, in fact, be indirectly responsible for the appearance of the tower--stress over the land swindle was a factor in the accident which damaged Martin Williamson's mind--is never for a moment acknowledged by anyone in the wider community.
In this immoral and feral environment two thoroughly black-hearted young men in particular, the upper-class Blair Bramwell and the lower-class Mervyn Toebeck, epitomise the sort of person that Cedric may become if he manages to establish himself in either of the social worlds available to him. The behaviour and histories of both these young men are notably similar catalogues of infamy. Even before the story opens, Blair Bramwell has managed to escape punishment for having 'duffed one of the maids up at his old man's house' and for her subsequent death during an illegal abortion. In addition, Blair Bramwell once drove his car while drunk into a girl on a bicycle. Despite seriously injuring her, he has also succeeded in avoiding a conviction or even any payment of compensation.(16) In chapter 68 of the book Blair Bramwell murders the Spook by decapitating him. Mervyn Toebeck, likewise, has committed crimes before the start of the story and is on probation for shoplifting and 'petty theft generally'. He steals the Christmas presents that he gives to the Williamson family. He traffics in illicit alcohol, and he almost certainly murders his own father.
At first, Cedric aspires to live like the wealthy Blair Bramwell, but in the course of the story he gravitates more towards the seedy world of Mervyn Toebeck. Cedric even joins Mervyn and the Spook in attempting to blackmail Blair Bramwell, with Cedric motivated by a desire to take back a portion of the family fortune that the Bramwells have swindled out of Granny. However, the three would-be extortionists are distracted during the first half of the novel by a 'dummy run', an attempt at blackmailing Ernie Fox, in which Cedric is complicit out of a combination of pride and fear. Blackmail, as Cedric acknowledges in the latter stages of Predicament, is 'a dirty filthy racket'. It is a crime peculiarly in keeping with the theme of ubiquitous corruption in the novel, since blackmail is a matter of evil people preying on the immorality of others in the name of a specious public respectability. It can flourish when respectability at all levels of society has become a sham. Indeed, Mervyn's father, Stanley Toebeck, has already managed to blackmail the Bramwells over Blair Bramwell's drunk-driving accident, and was 'slung some gold to keep his mouth shut' until the incident was too carefully hushed up by the Bramwell family to be further exposed.
The incipient menace to Cedric represented by Mervyn Toebeck and Blair Bramwell is matched only the ineffectualness of Cedric's own family. Granny is a strong-minded but physically fail woman, while Cedric's father is the exact opposite, a physically robust man who is mentally weak. Cedric himself seems to have combined both forms of weakness: he is neither especially intelligent nor physically prepossessing. He is introduced at the start of the narrative as a 'puny youth', and he is all too aware of his own inadequacies. Even Cedric's illustrious past is a burden to him rather than a source of support, since he cannot hope to live up to the famous reputation of his military grandfather. It seems no accident that Cedric fortifies himself to carry out his blackmail scheme at the end of the book with the General's brandy, even though the decision to proceed is, in fact, dangerously wrong-headed. The notion of a deleterious burden of history is unusual in New Zealand literature--at least, in Pakeha literature--and may perhaps have been borrowed from William Faulkner's Sartoris, another novel dealing with the crushing weight of the recent past on a rural family. In Faulkner's story a declining aristocratic Southern clan lives under the shadow of its dead patriarch, the civil war hero Colonel John Sartoris, 'that arrogant shade which dominated the house and the life that went on there and the whole scene itself'.(17) In a similar manner, Cedric and his family are forced by family history to live in a ridiculously grand old house which serves only to mock their present condition. Granny is required to scrub the floors herself and to air and dust rooms upstairs that nobody uses. For Cedric the house, like his past, is a kind of deadweight that appears to prevent any positive form of self-actualisation.
Mervyn Toebeck, then, with the temptations he inspires, represents something of the darker nature of Cedric's own personality. Mervyn Toebeck is a young man with his own 'evil passions' on the loose, and Morrieson goes to considerable lengths in the novel to portray him as rather like a doppelganger to Cedric.(18) Their mental connection has a more than merely friendly quality to it. When Cedric first meets Mervyn Toebeck, he reluctantly helps Mervyn pilfer some pieces of timber from the local mill while they make for the Toebeck house: it is the first of many instances of Mervyn's corrupting influence on Cedric. But Mervyn is struck 'by a sudden thought', as though reading the doubts in Cedric's mind, and he throws the stolen timber away. (Later, Cedric will realise that Mervyn Toebeck had a hidden reason for discarding the timber: Mervyn would not likely be staying any longer in his own house after murdering his father.) In chapter 13 Mervyn Toebeck explains to Cedric why he did not buy a wreath with the pound Granny gave him, appearing to make this explanation because he has observed the question in Cedric's mien: 'As if reading Cedric's thoughts'. In the novel the two new friends are soon strongly linked, at least in Cedric's mind, as 'The "Professor" and "Tubby" Toebeck. What a team! A sort of Laurel and Hardy effort'. As Cedric gradually begins to open up about his discontents to his new pal, Mervyn Toebeck even notes: 'You're coming round to my way of thinking fast'.(19)
Morrieson supplies an abundance of parallels between Meryvn Toebeck and Cedric. When the pair first meet, Mervyn almost immediately complains that he does not have 'any mates', and Cedric has already been described as 'a lonely boy with no real friends'. Both of them call Cedric's grandmother 'Granny', both enjoy reading P.G. Wodehouse and they even speak in unison in 'inadvertent eirenicon' until 'Cedric cursed this rapport which seemed determined to flourish'. Most significantly, Cedric is appalled when he understands that Mervyn has killed his own father, but the realisation also seems to release Cedric's own repressed, patricidal instincts, and he acknowledges to himself that: 'He wished his father would fall off the tower and break his neck'. Part of this doppelganger quality in Mervyn Toebeck may be mysterious, but much of it also comes from Cedric's willingness to fit himself to Mervyn's mode of thinking. Thus, in chapter 20, when Mervyn Toebeck insists that the world ought to be their oyster, Cedric rather overreacts by trying to complement this attitude. Cedric 'realized he was expected to enter, histrionically anyway, if not comprehendingly, into the spirit of a moment pregnant with amorphous greatness. He made his eyes narrow mysteriously, pressed his lips together, dropped his eyes to Mervyn's chin'. The narrative then comments, almost sarcastically, that the pair of them move off together with: 'Their minds triumphantly blank'.
Cedric, not unlike Neddy Poindexter in The Scarecrow, is particularly open to influence because, as an adolescent, his sense of identity is still developing and is thus remarkably porous. Cedric is still self-consciously determining an image of himself that he can present outwards to the world. Because he is short, he models himself at first on the film star James Cagney, hoping that he 'could convince his looking-glass he had the makings of a tough character', though he worries that he might appear better cast as the comic actor Stan Laurel. A casual comment from Mervyn Tobeck that: 'you've got the look of a thinker about you' prompts an extended desire in Cedric--from chapter 22 to 32--to refashion himself as 'The Professor', a nickname he has already endured at school. This new pose, however, only serves to get him into trouble. Aware of the importance of living up to this newfound role, Cedric attempts to impress Mervyn Toebeck and the Spook when they are discussing how, without photographic equipment, they might blackmail couples in the domain at night. Cedric suggests that a simple flashlight will substitute for an expensive camera. This idea then propels the three conspirators out of mere theory into the dangerous arena of practice.
At first, Cedric sees blackmail as a game and decides it is acceptable because it may provide the trappings to match his fantasies of a successful personality. He dreams that: 'The world of glamour, glitter, girls, money, open cars, why! it would be Cedric's too', in a debased version of the dreams of restored family glory that he imagined in chapter 19. However, when the extortion of Ernie Fox is actually underway, Cedric feels not only pangs of guilt but also a strong sense that he has become the wrong sort of person. He repeatedly passes his hand over his face and soon realises the subconscious significance of this gesture. It has come from his reading of Anatole France's 1890 novel Thais, the final sentence of which Cedric quotes in full: 'He had become so repulsive, that passing his hand over his face, he felt his own hideousness'.(20) In Thais France's protagonist, a monk named Paphnutius, converts the libertine dancer Thais to a Christian life but is then haunted by his inability to forget her charms. After years of absence from her, he hears that she is dying and returns to her. To his surprise, he finds that Thais has meantime become a famous saint. Paphnutius, on the other hand, has seen his own opportunity for securing genuine virtue slip away while he has stoically attempted to deny his true nature, and so at the close of the book he falls into despair. Somewhat similarly, Cedric realises that he has become even lower than Maybelle Zimmerman, whom he despises, by failing to fend off his own dark impulses. He begins to understand that, like Paphnutius, he has lost his moral compass.
Very shortly after this spiritual low, Cedric decides that: 'He would be an author'.(21) Immediately he feels, with a number of reasons offered, that as a vocation for him: 'It was perfect'. Morrieson has Cedric come to this momentous decision as a result of reading Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and this choice of book is probably no accident. Several prominent New Zealand writers had already praised Huckleberry Finn as a possible model for anyone seeking to create an indigenous literature in a new country.(22) Of course, Cedric's decision in Predicament to become an author is likely to produce a small frisson in any literary critic, but within the context of the novel this decision is not important in the manner conventional to literary fiction, of offering an outlet for creative talent or of a route to fame and fortune. The question of whether Cedric will likely succeed as an author is, in fact, left open in the book. Morrieson may even have cut passages describing Cedric's attempts at writing from an early version of the manuscript, presumably to render impossible any judgment of Cedric's talent.(23) Certainly, one can hear a heavy note of irony sounding in Cedric's comment that: 'Everyone knew that authors were simply lousy with money'. What matters most about Cedric's decision to become a writer in the future, something which makes it more vital to the book than a mere flourish, is that it provides Cedric with a stable base on which to build his still developing personality. Through this he can reject the choices of identity as 'Pisa' or 'Professor' which are being thrust onto him by the callous townsfolk.
Morrieson does, however, go to some lengths to suggest that authorship is a natural aspiration for Cedric. Cedric is enchanted by reading, and in chapter 22 Morrieson provides an extensive list of books which Cedric receives as Christmas presents. Morrieson also implies that Cedric is unusually interested in language. Cedric is intrigued, for instance, by Mervyn Toebeck's use of the expression 'Gild the lily' and his reaction is to 'mutter it over to himself, a habit of his with phrases that took his fancy'. Three pages later in the story, in a passage of free indirect narrative, Cedric then employs the same phrase himself. In chapter 23, when the Spook is introducing himself in the narrative by describing his many schemes, Cedric misses some of the conversation while trying to think of the correct term to replace the Spook's malapropism: 'The idea had been lying "dominant" in his brain for some time'. Language may indicate social class for the majority of characters in the book, but for the declasse Cedric it acts more an as indicator of his shifting sense of identity. Thus when Cedric wishes to be seen by Mervyn Toebeck and the Spook as embodying his nickname 'the Professor', his manner of speech adapts accordingly.
He seemed to be speaking more fluently. He was avoiding the 'sorta' and 'kinda' style of speaking which for so long had rescued him from many an inarticulate corner. The extensive vocabulary he called on so readily in his essay writing was no longer playing hide-and-seek with his tongue.
Cedric's decision to become an author, then, does not resolve all his problems except in providing a secure foundation for his personality when further crucial choices must be made. For although Cedric decides on authorship in the middle of the novel, his whole future seems to hang very much in the balance throughout the story. At the novel's close Cedric's ultimate predicament--he faces several in the course of the book--is whether or not to proceed under Mervyn Toebeck's instructions and seek revenge on the Bramwells through blackmail. This decision, too, is connected to what kind of person Cedric will ultimately become, not least because the reader is aware that Cedric is on the verge of detection and capture. It is the last hurdle Cedric must face in his quest for self-actualisation, as he stumbles between the limited set of options available to him in the town. To proceed is to challenge the town and yet fall to its moral level; to do nothing is to submit to the will of the town and remain its victim.
Naturally, elements from The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday appear to have been incorporated into the making of Predicament. The novel shares The Scarecrow's conservative view of sexual development and even its disgust with promiscuity. Cedric's battle to control his adolescent 'evil passions'[18, 59, 92] is referred to three times in the story, and he reaches the conclusion, on seeing Ernie Fox and Maybelle Zimmerman in the act, that sex 'was a revolting business'. Mervyn Toebeck, in contrast, always surrenders to his passions, even his 'passion for condensed milk'. In chapter 16 he gets drunk, and then plies Cedric with alcohol, releasing their sexual desires. When under the malign influence of booze, Mervyn starts to rue the lack of a brothel in the town, and he comments much later that: 'This dirty sexy business is here to stay, my beloved 'earers. They'll never stamp it out'.
Likewise, the outlandish farce of Came a Hot Friday is recaptured in parts of Predicament, notably in the second half where Morrieson introduces a number of twists and turns into the plot. There is, for example, an extended and bizarrely comic fuss over the Spook's head after his decapitation. The conversation between Blair and Margot Bramwell in Chapter 70 is a cornucopia of gags with references to heads. In chapter 72 Cedric and Mervyn Toebeck come into possession of the Spook's head by accident and are then forced to dispose of it in front of an unknowing Granny. Chapter 74 ends with Granny's comic mention of: 'Nothing like getting your head down', and in chapter 82 Morrieson reinserts the head into the story when Cedric struggles to avoid revealing it to Detective Huggins. Interspersed with all this are further strange and madcap events, such as Mervyn Toebeck burying and digging up coins in the Williamson meadow, and a high-speed chase in a car loaded with illegal alcohol out of town to the Aranga Viaduct.
Just as The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday are essentially conceived as pastiches, so too Predicament is written as a pastiche of the mystery novel. Indeed, one reason why Morrieson introduces a lot of new mysteries into the second half of the book is precisely because at the halfway point in his tale Cedric has solved the novel's first and greatest puzzle: the true nature of Stanley Toebeck's death. Cedric understands that Mervyn Toebeck has murdered his father and that Cedric himself, in meeting Mervyn near the beginning of the novel, has been used unwittingly to provide an alibi. Thus, because Predicament is a Morrieson pastiche--whatever its aspirations to social satire may be--the novel's language seems almost unable to resist occasionally descending into parody, albeit much less often than in the earlier books. In chapter 9, for example, an exchange between Blair and Margot Bramwell is developed in a grand style more suitable for the southern gentry of the United States in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald than for the New Zealand nouveau riche. Morrieson gestures towards realism, in part, by emphasising the sense of two people self-consciously adopting their roles, but the passage extends for a page or more and, characteristically of Morrieson, seems to revel in its own playfulness. It commences as follows:
Blair himself opened the door for her and bowed.
'Blair,' said Margot. 'I declare you're intoxicated. You know your father is against this daytime guzzling. Why are you home so early anyway?'
'I will hearken to my father,' said Blair, 'when he practises what he preaches. I came home early to dream and scheme. Alcohol seemed essential for inspiration. I am developing into a thinking drinker. My word, do you realize that's impossible to spoonerize?' He put an arm around Margot but she ducked under it and went down the hall.
'Fool,' she whispered, but couldn't resist an over-shoulder smile. In the lounge, turning to him as he followed her in and closed the door, she said, 'The thrinking dinker. There you are. Nothing's impossible.'
Blair took both her hands and looked down into her pert and sly, but unquestionably bewitching features. 'It's you that's impossible. Margot Kid, I'm going slowly crackers with desire.'
The artificiality of the passage's language stands out all the more because its very public, ludic display of refinement is sandwiched between the very Kiwi vernacular discourse of Margot's private, and far more immoral, thoughts: 'No bugger's going to put my weights up just to have a blow-through', and 'Damn it, she thought, the old boy trying to hose it into me for hours every night is only making things worse: he's just priming me up'. Indeed, after the passage closes with its crude considerations of 'priming me up', a brief attempt by Margot to revive the grand manner of Fitzgerald falls flat immediately. She asks:
'Fix me a gin sling, would you, Blair? You know my formula. There's a dear boy.'
Blair laughed. 'Dear boy. That's rich.'
'What's so funny?' Margot said, blowing out a thin stream of blue smoke.
As in Morrieson's earlier novels, notably The Scarecrow, the language of parody seems to be running along the track of its own discourse and following its own internal dynamic in search of a narrative effect, independent of the requirements of character or plot.(24)
In a similar vein, Morrieson contrives a brief parody of the high-toned church signboard in Burton Street, 'The Most Holy House of Worship of Believers in the Ancient Order of Martyrs', partly to suggest the ongoing battle within Cedric over his own morality.(25) The parody is spoken by Cedric and peppered with mild expletives. Cedric begins mumbling: 'The most Holy House of bee Worship of bee Believers in the Ancient feffing Order of Bee Martyrs', until, moments later, his attention is arrested, first by the sight of a miraculous star and then by the witch-like appearance of Madame Zombroni. A further instance of playfulness is the use of the name 'Gerard Hemingway' for the owner of the flat where Blair and Margot Bramwell secretly meet. This generates a brief background for the Hemingway character that is most unlikely within the context of a small New Zealand town. Gerard Hemingway is 'a globe trotter and a big game hunter', and he will be conveniently absent from his flat because he has departed 'for Africa on a big game hunting Safari'. All this is an obvious caricature by Morrieson of Ernest Hemingway's public reputation, at least in the period leading up to Hemingway's death in 1961, a few years before Predicament was written. Morrieson also has Vernon Bramwell comment on Hemingway, with ironic implications for Morrieson's own writing: 'Fellow would be better off concerning himself in local affairs than chasing around the wilds of Africa'. These remarkable insertions into the narrative of what amount to an extended in-joke with his readers form another example of Morrieson's willingness to forgo the conventions of realism for his own ends, as in his previous novels.
Just as in the past, Morrieson is also willing to abandon the conventions of realism by introducing characters through Dickensian signatures.(26) Near the start of the novel the pompous and shifty Vernon Bramwell is characterised by a verbal tic, the insertion of 'ah' into his speech with 'the next word always doubly emphasized'. The aptly named Winker first appears 'winking every so often in the craftiest way imaginable'[60-1] and is referred to as 'the winking man'[160, 202] in later parts of the story. In the same way, the Spook never fails to sneak up on Mervyn Toebeck or Cedric in a silent, ghostly manner, and Madame Zombroni's witchlike qualities are always referred to whenever she appears. On top of this Morrieson maintains his longstanding fondness for verbal witticisms, such as Mervyn Toebeck's comment that: 'my old man wasn't exactly a pillow of society', or Mervyn's description of Stanley Toebeck as 'a real white man' because Toebeck favours drinking white methylated spirits. However, by any standard of comparison such playfulness is less on display in Predicament than in Morrieson's previous novels, and this may even have been a factor in the book's rejection by publishers. Angus & Robertson, Morrieson's Australian publishers, appear to have first turned down the manuscript because the work was 'loose in construction and comparatively flat in style'.(27) Morrieson's consequent need to enliven the narrative may go some way towards explaining the otherwise mysterious use of short and frequent chapters in Predicament, a habit which serves mostly to break up any realistic flow in the story. It is a feature noticeably absent from any of Morrieson's other novels. Predicament has a whopping 97 chapters and some, such as chapters 41, 42, 69 and 92, are little more than a paragraph in length.(28) It is conceivable that Morrieson resorted to this as another method of shoring up his work's anti-realist appeal.
In addition to these various elements borrowed from The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, the presence of the narrator is always obvious in Predicament, as it is in Morrieson's first two novels--whether the narrator is manipulating point of view in the ostensibly first-person narrative of The Scarecrow or breaking directly with his own voice into the third-person narrative of Came a Hot Friday. This narratorial presence serves as an anti-realist device, at least within the conventions of twentieth-century literature, driving each of the novels further towards pastiche. In Predicament the narrator's presence is made clear from the very start, when he begins the novel by speaking out directly in not one but two opening paragraphs. In the first paragraph of the book the narrator does little more than establish himself as a character in his own story, looking back to the days before the popular 'Beatle haircut'. (This, in itself, is a gesture towards nostalgia for the 1930s and, as if by magic, it nowadays induces a further nostalgia in the reader for the narrator's vantage-point in the 1960s.) But it is in the second paragraph of the novel that the action, 'a bizarre, macabre and altogether despicable adventure', gets properly underway. This use of twin starting paragraphs is also employed by Morrieson in both The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday. Indeed, this twin-start strategy is a notably original feature of Morrieson's writing, although Predicament is the last of his works to exploit it. It does not appear in Pallet on the Floor or in Morrieson's short stories. But in addition, the sort of parallelism that appears in the paired opening paragraphs of Predicament is then on display throughout the narrative: upper and lower society, Blair Bramwell and Mervyn Toebeck, Granny's damaged body and Martin Williamson's damaged mind, the nicknames 'Pisa' and 'Professor'. This is all part and parcel of what Post-Modernist critics would later term 'binaries', and it offers yet another example of Morrieson's uncanny ability to write ahead of the curve of literary-critical fashion.
It is tempting to see Cedric as the narrator of Predicament, embellishing his own story here and there in the manner of Neddy Poindexter, the narrator of The Scarecrow. Certainly it seems that much, if not all, of the story is told from Cedric's point of view. Any movement outside of Cedric's direct knowledge as narrator can be explained away as Cedric himself resorting to plausible invention, just as Neddy Poindexter does in The Scarecrow. At first blush, then, it seems possible that, having resolved to be an author, Cedric has grown up and written his novel. However, there are a few hints placed in the text to suggest that Cedric is not actually the narrator of the book. One is the narrator's statement that, since Cedric understands how heavily he is entangled in the Spook's murder, Cedric 'could never dare put on paper' his own terrible adventures. A second is the occasional tendency for the novel to describe Cedric from an authorial distance suggestive of its narrator being a separate consciousness. An example is the narrator's surprisingly tentative comment in chapter 2 that, for Cedric, 'being broke didn't precipitate his descent into the maelstrom of crime although it may have given him a push on the way'. Even the lengthy paragraph which soon follows, with the narrator's enumeration of 'what appears to be emerging as a brief for the defence of Cedric Williamson', offers further evidence of an outsider's point of view. Undoubtedly the passage closes with subjective concerns that only Cedric could be aware of, such as his unrequited crush on a second cousin and the disturbed content of his dreams, but it begins in a much more objective fashion, with 'we find boredom; unpopularity; a deep interior dissatisfaction with his lot', and continues for some while in this vein. The lasting impression it leaves is of a set of comments being made on Cedric by another, rather than by Cedric himself. A still further hint suggesting the separateness of the narrator from Cedric is a passing comment in the novel, after it has been noted that Cedric never saw the sinister Toebeck house again, that: 'Sometime in the following year it was pulled down'. Cedric and his family are due to leave the town soon after the close of the story, and therefore this demolition most likely happens at some point after the Williamsons' departure and, presumably, without their knowledge. It may be, therefore, that the narrator of Predicament is in fact an interested local telling the story of an event in his town many years ago. As a local, the narrator would be someone resorting to plausible invention occasionally to fabricate Cedric's point of view--in a narratorial approach exactly opposite to that of The Scarecrow.
On the basis of this apparent ambiguity concerning narratorial status, it is possible to speculate that the presence of the narrator in Predicament has shifted subtly from the position of the simple, storyteller-ringmaster figures of Morrieson's earlier works. The narrator's new status seems somewhat like the more tentative chronicler-narrator of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, another novel built upon patricide and unsuitable relationships. Dostoevsky's narrator, eschewing the standard notions of realism, is famously both able to report as a provincial observer on events that have taken place and also to enter the minds of characters. It has been noted by critics that one reason why Dostoevsky adopted such a narrative strategy, with its 'chorus-like quality', was to defuse negative reactions to his novel's message.(29) The importance of this provincial chronicler-narrator in The Brothers Karamazov is certainly more pronounced than is the case with Predicament, and any comparison between the novels may seem uncomfortably out of scale: Dostoevsky's metaphysical epic certainly operates on a different plane from Morrieson's much slighter book. Nevertheless, if this shift in the status of the narrator is correct, it is scarcely the first occasion on which Morrieson's superb instincts and willingness to structure his writing in original ways have led him to remarkable, independent discoveries. But in any event the move towards the presence of a Dostoevskian chronicler-narrator is a trend developed no further in Morrieson's fiction: by Pallet on the Floor Morrieson's narrator has achieved the mostly detached tone and largely neutral presence of the conventional Modernist novel.
However, the difficulty with employing such a range of anti-realist tactics in a work like Predicament is that social satire--and mystery too, for that matter--always requires a certain degree of realism in order to become suitably convincing. Morrieson's anti-realist The Scarecrow does not aim for satire and succeeds by restricting itself to little more than a simple and classically moral message: the excessive indulgence of appetites is bad.(30) (The message is somewhat mitigated by the novel's chief attraction, its playful and fine excesses of language: but it seems priggish to complain of this too loudly.) The moral message within the frantic action of Came a Hot Friday appears embodied in the rather ambiguous motif of a painting, a black horse and a white horse in panic on a field during a storm. Peter Simpson, no doubt aptly, identifies this in Blakean terms, as a yin and yang statement of humanity's powerlessness in the face of an absurd universe.(31) However, this is as far as Came a Hot Friday strays into philosophy, and the symbol can even appear a little contrived amid the novel's more enjoyable development of its own fun and games. But Predicament seeks to strike a deeper and more serious note. Cedric must find a way to live in his town, a town with no name that could be anywhere, and a town where Cedric's apparent choice of paths in life is flawed because the town's society at all levels is hopelessly, irredeemably, corrupt.
To highlight this moral problem, Morrieson lets loose his hold on comic pastiche and attempts to bring decidedly more realistic moments into Predicament than in any of his previous works. Mervyn Toebeck describes his violent upbringing in realistic detail, with:
Has your father ever bashed you around the house with his fists? Has he ever put the boot into you? Have you had to crawl down the road to wash yourself in a stagnant pond because the old bath is full of piss and spew? Did you have to get a paper run so you'd have enough money to eat? Did you ever come home and find your old man trying to shag an old whore on a sack in front of the fire?
The Spook describes a hunger so debilitating that: 'I could sit in the gutter and howl my guts out'. Cedric's insecurities over his physique are rehearsed at a length that realistically suggests the obsessions of an early adolescent. Even the sex scenes, between Ernie Fox and Maybelle Zimmerman in chapter 27, and between Blair and Margot Bramwell in chapter 66, lack any of the comic grotesquery or distancing of the previous novels, and therefore seem franker and more graphic. The bad language of the characters, too, is notably coarser than in Morrieson's previous work. But these realistic aspects merely seem at odds with the other more anti-realist, comic elements in the book, and it is precisely the clash between these influences in Predicament, between comic pastiche and social realism, that leads to the novel's ultimate failure. At best, the comedy can only be darker and more pointed than in Morrieson's previous books, with the excess and virtuosity heavily muted. At worst, the lack of laughter betrays the reader's expectations. Certainly, Angus & Roberston wanted more of the old comic pizazz.
Furthermore, the moral message of Predicament is always murky, as Peter Simpson has also noted in his own study of the book.(32) By the end of the novel both Mervyn Toebeck and Blair Bramwell are in jail, even sharing the same cell, but it appears that both men will escape being charged with outright murder. Cedric himself is rescued only by chance from his dangerous predicament of deciding whether or not to proceed with the blackmail of Blair Bramwell. He actually succumbs to the temptation to commit the crime and is then disturbed at the vital moment during the evening by the sight of his father standing up on the tower. In consequence, as part of a misguided effort to protect his own home, Cedric causes his father to be seriously hurt and derails his own plans to go ahead with the extortion. (In fact, even this moment of solemn importance in the novel and in Cedric's life clashes uncomfortably with a cartoonishly comic form of narrative resolution: a blow to the head makes Martin Williamson mentally ill, and now another blow restores him.) In the end, though, after a few more plot machinations, Cedric and his family escape the doom-laden corruption of the town, and the burden of a past intrinsically bound up with such corruption, simply by leaving for someplace new. Granny will sell the family house to Dr Buick. For Cedric, there will be no more nicknames 'in a new town, somewhere over the rainbow'. He notes that even the tower will become reduced to a dream.(33) The family will put their belongings into their old cart and Gus, their faithful horse, will draw them away to a new and humble start.
In the vagaries of Post-Modern critical parlance, therefore, Cedric rejects binaryism and comes to a new awareness. But the issue of departure for somewhere better was already a well-established theme in New Zealand literature by the late 1960s, whether it was from A.R.D. Fairburn announcing: 'To the young man I would say:/ Get out! Look sharp, my boy', or Frank Sargeson concluding: 'maybe it's best for a man to hang on.'(34) It is intrinsic to the hesitancy of settlement found in Post-Colonial writing, and in any event the idea that hope resides somewhere else has an honourable tradition in most literatures. Huckleberry Finn ends with Huck lighting out for the territory. A passage similar to the close of Predicament even appears in The Brothers Karamazov.
Then after a pause he said, his lips still trembling as before: 'Daddy,' he said, 'what a horrid town this is, Daddy!' 'Yes, darling,' I said, 'it isn't a very nice town.' 'Daddy,' he said, 'let's move to another town, to a nice town, where they don't know about us!' 'Very well, Ilyusha,' I said, 'we shall as soon as I've saved up enough money.' I was glad of the opportunity of distracting him from his gloomy thoughts, and we began dreaming how we would move to another town, buy a horse and cart. 'We'll put Mummy and your sisters in it, cover them up, and you and I will walk beside it. I'll put you in the cart too, now and then, and I'll walk beside, for we must take care of our horse and we can't all ride. That's how we will go.' He was delighted with it, and especially that we would have a horse and cart of our own and he would ride in it.(35)
But there is surely a hint of irony in Cedric's archly cliched suggestion that any new town will be 'somewhere over the rainbow' . The town that Cedric will leave behind is never named in the book and, if it is an everyplace, then by clear implication, no better place can be waiting for him and his family. The happy ending of the novel is just as heavily muddied as its morality.
Predicament, the problem child, is thus a transitional novel, and Morrieson's final work, Pallet on the Floor, offers suggestions as to the direction in which Morrieson was most likely heading. Alas, these are not much more than hints, since Morrieson's health was fading as he wrote the book, so that Pallet on the Floor is a brief and poorly finished novel. Its ending in particular has a rushed, perfunctory quality that offers little satisfaction for readers. The novel in its published form may in fact have been only a draft of what would have become a more developed work.(36) Pallet on the Floor has many of the elements of a Morrieson novel, but with nothing of the comedy. The book's mateship seems more mechanical than previously, the drinking more desperate and the social chaos more menacing. Significantly, the novel does not seem to be based on any form of pastiche. Set in the small, rural town of Kurikino, it is the story of the attempted rape of Sam Jamieson's Maori wife, Sue, by a truck driver, Jack Voot, then Voot's consequent death at the hands of Sam and his mates, and the blackmailing of Sam by a local woman, Miriam Breen. Eventually, Sam Jamieson is delivered from his troubles by an act of murder-suicide which is carried out by one of his friends, Spud McGhee. Sam and Sue then leave their broken-down house on its highly elevated, sloping section in the town to go and live at the Wainongoro Pa among Sue's Maori relatives, where they will be literally more down-to-earth when sleeping on the floor. But as a form of deus ex machina Spud McGhee compares badly with the Te Whakinga Kid of Came a Hot Friday and, bereft of humour, what Peter Simpson calls the novel's 'brutal realism' can make the book hard to absorb.(37) This difficulty is further compounded, as Simpson perceptively notes, by the fact that: "Except for Voot's initial attack on Sue all the violence in Pallet on the Floor is committed by the "sympathetic" characters'.(38)
But despite the poorly finished state of the novel, the overall bleakness of tone in Pallet on the Floor does not owe quite as much to the declining condition of Morrieson's physical and mental health as might at first seem apparent. After all, Simpson points out that Morrieson appears to have written the lively and comic short story 'Cross My Heart and Cut My Throat' in June 1970, despite most probably having begun work at Pallet on the Floor during this same period.(39) 'Cross My Heart and Cut My Throat' is the story of a twenty-three-year-old band musician who accepts his first music student and faces the attendant prospect of a more respectable lifestyle. Almost immediately, however, the rebellious aspects of his character reassert themselves--as though they display a perverse survival instinct of their own--and he backslides towards sexual misconduct with his nubile young pupil. The story is jaunty and funny in the manner of Morrieson's first two novels, though not without its implied criticism of society's hypocrisy. It is a slight but very satisfyingly realised work.
Without doubt, though, Morrieson consciously conceived of Pallet on the Floor as a work that would be highly critical of society. In striving for the cultural impact of social realist novels of the 1940s and 50s, Pallet on the Floor might have seemed something of a backward step for a writer whose previous books had wonderfully anticipated the Post-Modernism of New Zealand literature in the 1980s. However, in a significant move beyond the early complaints of social realism, and even the satire of Predicament, Morrieson proceeds to advocate a radical cure for the ills of New Zealand society. By suggesting an embrace of Maori values and even a Maori lifestyle, at a time when Maori people themselves were still being urged to assimilate into the Pakeha world, Morrieson shows himself once again to be almost preternaturally ahead of the crowd, both in New Zealand and in terms of similar trends overseas. The Maori world, as Morrieson presents it, is bucolic and largely free from evil in a manner quite unique in his fiction. In The Scarecrow evil is personified by Hubert Salter, and when he is eliminated the wider community is saved. In Came a Hot Friday evil is mostly focused on Sel Bishop, and it is destroyed by the brief appearance of a socially useful form of cleansing anarchy, an antipodean Feast of Fools. But in Predicament, and then later in Pallet on the Floor, evil cannot be expelled from the community but only escaped from, because evil is endemic to the community itself: all of the town's citizens, even the sympathetic characters, must therefore fall a prey to it. The Maori pa is free of evil precisely because it is not part of the mainstream community. This new departure in Morrieson's work, an intensification of the presence of evil into something altogether more pervasive and problematic, marks a fundamental change in vision from his earlier novels.
The cruelty and violence that appears to seep up out of the poverty of New Zealand Pakeha life is the theme of Pallet on the Floor. However, in comparison to--for example--Janet Frame's masterful meditation on cruelty in her short story 'You Are Now Entering the Human Heart', Morrieson's book seems not to have been completely worked out in all its aspects. As presented, its characters and their situation fall short of embodying the metaphysical conundrum Morrieson has in mind as his theme, unlike the case with Frame's story or, for that matter, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. One major problem centres on the freezing works which dominates the town of Kurikino, and whether Morrieson intends for this abattoir to be interpreted as a genuine social determinant or as a symbol. Does the institutionalised cruelty and violence of the freezing works form the actual source of the morally corrupt condition of Kurikino and, by extension, of Pakeha society? If the slaughterhouse determines the viciousness of the townsfolk, then the mechanism of how this operates remains unclear. How can the freezing works corrupt everyone, especially those who do not even work there? The Voot brothers, who are truck drivers, Miriam Breen, who is a housewife, and her husband Jack Breen, who is also a truck driver, are all plainly meant to be much more repellent characters in the novel than Sam Jamieson and his mates, who work at the abattoir every day. Similarly, it appears that Sue, despite living in the town and being married to a freezing worker, is immune from this corruption. Quite why Sue should be an exception is not gone into by Morrieson, other than that she is a Maori. Yet Morrieson also suggests that Maoris who have moved to the city have suffered the corruption of their culture and have got into trouble with the law. It is tempting to assume that a later draft might have resolved this point by making Sue more obviously a traditional Maori at heart. In addition to this, it is tempting for a critic to see Spud McGhee's invasive cancer as a useful parallel to the creeping infection of the townspeople by the freezing works--except that in the book, as it stands, Morrieson never appears to hint at any such connection.
But if, as is perhaps more likely, the freezing works operates in a more symbolic manner in the novel, as the symbol of an enslaving capitalist materialism inherent to Pakeha society, then the problem arises of why the Pakeha characters in the book all possess so little on a material level.(40) Morrieson frequently mentions that his main characters are earning big money at the slaughterhouse, but they live in huts and hovels, they own next to nothing and they seem to spend their earnings only on alcohol and cigarettes. This state of affairs might in itself be easily explained away as the awful result of an enervating capitalism, but the contrasting life of the Maoris, on the material level, still compares rather favourably with life in the Pakeha world. The Maoris live rent free in their own whares at the pa. They have plenty of food and are healthy, and they are even able to brew their own alcohol. They receive the same benefits as they would in Pakeha life, and without the necessity of Pakeha work. Therefore, it is difficult to see how an existence on the pa can be at a remove from the condition of Pakeha materialism, at least as Morrieson portrays it here. By staying with the Kurikino Maoris in the Wainongoro Pa at the close of the book, Sam Jamieson appears to lose nothing in the trade-off beyond a job he does not like and his empty sense of pride.
Over and above this issue, the misery of Pakeha life in Kurikino does not appear to derive entirely from the malign influence of the freezing works, whether symbolic or real. There is also an uncomfortable sense of the pervasiveness of death in the novel which seems unconnected to any real or symbolic violence, nor to capitalism or materialism. This is notable in the tragic deaths of Brendon O'Keefe and Sam Jamieson's mother before the book opens, and then in the comparative lightness with which no less than four characters are despatched in the course of the book's few pages. In Pallet on the Floor the value of life itself appears somehow negated by death. But if the best people are already dead and life is cheap, then does it really matter so much how one lives? The terminally ill Spud McGhee seems to feel that life is near-worthless, since he is not especially sorry to depart from the world by the end of the story. All this narrative and thematic untidiness would most probably have been better worked out in a more finished version of the book.
Perhaps wisely, Morrieson does not examine the Maori values he is espousing in any great detail in Pallet on the Floor. That task was for Maori writers of fiction themselves to elucidate later, sometimes in idealised forms, sometimes not. However, in his book Morrieson does offer a number of instances of Pakeha racism, and in particular he suggests its casual, sneaking nature in mid-twentieth-century New Zealand, and its roots in the community's sense of complacency. It is not hard to guess how much more socially engaged and even fierce an author Morrieson might have become if Pallet on the Floor had been properly developed, and if further novels had followed. The role of Predicament, too, might have become more obvious in Morrieson's oeuvre. Instead, by the early 1970s the breach had grown unsustainable between the accepting, traditional, communal and largely pastoral lifestyle Morrieson was advocating--a form of living that for a time he had brought off, somewhat, in his own hometown with his mother and aunt and free-spirited friends--and the reality of the isolated, disappointed and alcoholic existence that Morrieson was now enduring. The centre could not hold, and finally Morrieson had to die as he wrote, unappreciated and almost alone.
1. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1982: 12.
2. For a detailed discussion of the literary reception, the themes and the techniques of The Scarecrow, see: Richards, Ian. 'Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow', [https://nofrillsnzlit.angelfire.com/TwoNZBooks.html].
3. 'Remembering the Fifties--Hutt Valley'. Bland, Peter. Selected Poems. Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1998: 113. (Bland also famously played the role of Wes Pennington in the 1985 movie version of Came a Hot Friday.)
4. Millen, Julia. Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography. David Ling, Auckland, 1996: 188-9. For a detailed critical examination of Came a Hot Friday, see: Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 31-40.
5. Letter to Maurice Shadbolt, 1 Dec. 1970. Quoted in Millen, Julia. Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography. Op. cit.: 216.
6. Morrieson, Ronald Hugh. Predicament. Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1974. Later Penguin, Auckland, 1986. (In his bibliography to Ronald Hugh Morrieson Peter Simpson notes that Predicament was actually first published in 1975, and this date appears widely elsewhere. Page references after quotations throughout this essay, in square brackets, are to the Dunmore Press edition. The text has been poorly proofread and is marred by a number of errors, e.g. 'he was also known as 'pisa' Williamson' for 'he was also known as 'Pisa' Williamson'; 'the Williamson looked' for 'the Williamson mansion looked'; 'He mutter it' for 'He muttered it'; 'He ate in silence for sometime' for 'He ate in silence for some time'; 'enjoying his company but, when Granny's call up the stairs' for 'enjoying his company, but Granny's call up the stairs'; 'Hang on, hang on...'' for 'Hang on, hang on...[no closing speech marks]'; 'you're place' for 'your place'; 'around the wilds of Africa."' for 'around the wilds of Africa.[no closing speech marks--or possibly a response following this speech has been lost.]'; 'Madame Sombroni' for 'Madame Zombroni'; 'betrayed his agittaion' for 'betrayed his agitation'; 'I havent' had' for 'I haven't had'. In addition, there is no chapter 28 in the text, and perhaps chapter 27, which is unusually long, contains a chapter break which has been lost.) Morrieson, Ronald Hugh. Pallet on the Floor. Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1976. Later Penguin, Auckland, 1983.
7. Cunningham, Kevin. Islands 13 (Spring 1975): 345-9. Volkerling, Michael. New Zealand Listener, 17 May, 1975: 28.
8. Copland, R.A.. Review of Predicament. Landfall 115, vol. 29, no. 3 (Sept. 1975): 260-2.
9. Jones, Lawrence. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 160.
10. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 40.
11. In chapter 57 Morrieson specifies the year as 1936 ('Tuesday 7/1/36') and in chapter 93 he confirms this ('the ninth of January 1936'). Consulting a perpetual calendar also reveals that the first of January 1936 was indeed a Wednesday, just as Morrieson mentions in chapter 34 ('the first night of the new year'; 'one week from tonight, Wednesday night'), and that 7 January 1936 was a Tuesday, as in chapter 57.
12. Cedric says that Blair Bramwell's Auburn is 'the only one like it around'. In his 1983 poem on Morrieson, 'Klynham,' Kendrick Smithyman mentions 'a maroon/ Auburn roadster' and writes that 'only one came to this country'. [http://www.smithymanonline.auckland.ac.nz/]
13. It is tempting, from photos that exist of Morrieson (such as the photograph on the cover of Millen's biography), and from constructed ideas of Morrieson's 'image', to see this as an instance of the author unobtrusively inserting himself into the background of his own story. A precedent for this exists in The Scarecrow, where Morrieson appears to be briefly present in chapters 4 and 18 of his own book. [Richards, Ian. 'Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow'. Op. cit..]
14. Millen, Julia. Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography. Op. cit.: 198, 216. Some critics, including Millen, have been quick to point out a connection between the tower in Predicament and the real-life Hawera Water Tower, with its Pisa-like lean. But the differences are also striking. Morrieson's fictional tower, as detailed in chapter 2 of Predicament, is made of wood and is constructed with its first five storeys looking roughly like a right-angled triangle, with the left side flush and the right side stepped, followed by the next storeys up appearing like another right-angled triangle with the right side flush and the left side stepped. Furthermore, Morrieson's tower is solidly constructed and has no lean. The real-life and fictional towers, then, have mostly the convenient fact that they are towers in common.
15. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 45-6. Simpson also discusses the tower at some length as Morrieson's 'oblique and ironic comment on his own literary career'. [Op. cit.: 55-7.]
16. This incident has some parallels with Morrieson's own traffic accident in Stratford in 1940, when the car he was driving hit a young woman named Iris Saggers. However, unlike Blair Bramwell, Morrieson was convicted of failing to stop and given 2 years probation, with his driving licence revoked for the same period. [Millen, Julia. Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography. Op. cit.:79-86.]
17. Faulkner, William. Sartoris. Part 2, chapter 5.
18. The italics in the quotation are Morrieson's.
19. Peter Simpson gives some considerable attention to Mervyn Toebeck's role as Cedric's 'alter ego' and discusses how, for Cedric, involvement with Mervyn Toebeck is a psychological 'descent into nightmare'. [Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 46-7.]
20. France, Anatole. Thais. 1890. (This translation, Douglas, Robert B.. Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1924: 249. The italics are Morrieson's.)
21. The italics in the quotation are Morrieson's.
22. For a discussion of Morrieson and Huckleberry Finn, see: Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 56; and Richards, Ian. 'Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow'. Op. cit..
23. This appears to be the sense of Millen's comment on the making of Predicament: 'One version was entitled "Is X Real?", this being the title of something the main character--Cedric the schoolboy and would-be author--writes.' [Millen, Julia. Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography. Op. cit.: 198.] Peter Simpson, however, states that 'the early versions of the novel have not survived'. [Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 14.]
24. For a discussion of this quality of Morrieson's writing in The Scarecrow, see: Richards, Ian. 'Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow'. Op. cit..
25. The italics in the quotation are Morrieson's.
26. For a discussion of the use of Dickensian signatures as a form of characterisation in The Scarecrow, see: Richards, Ian. 'Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow'. Op. cit..
27. Douglas Stewart quoted in: Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 14.
28. However, chapter 28 in the text published by Dunmore Press is missing (see note 6).
29. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009: 852. Frank himself is paraphrasing the arguments of the Russian critic, V.E. Vetlovskaya.
30. For a more detailed discussion of the moral message of The Scarecrow, see: Richards, Ian. 'Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow'. Op. cit..
31. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 34-6, 40.
32. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 48.
33. In his own study of Predicament Peter Simpson considerably develops the idea that the story 'is a kind of projection of Cedric's psychology into an actual predicament, in the same way that the plot of a dream or nightmare shapes itself to the contours of the subconscious'. This reading of Predicament as a descent into Cedric's own psyche is largely incompatible with my reading of the novel as social satire, but nonetheless has its merits. The ability of the novel to encompass two such radically differing views is certainly a tribute to the richness and complexity of Morrieson's work. [Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 45-8.]
34. Fairburn, A.R.D. 'I'm Older Than You, Please Listen.' Sargeson, Frank. 'The Making of a New Zealander.'
35. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (trans. Magarshack, David). The Brothers Karamazov. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1958. Part 2, Book 4, chap 7: 241-2
36. Peter Simpson suggests as much in his introduction to Pallet on the Floor, and that Morrieson 'would have expanded and revised it had he lived long enough to do so'. [Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction' to Pallet on the Floor. Penguin, Auckland, 1983: xviii.]
37. Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction' to Pallet on the Floor. Op. cit.: xix.
38. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 50.
39. Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction' to Pallet on the Floor. Op. cit.: xv, xix. Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 48.
40. Peter Simpson also sees the freezing works as a 'symbol of industrial capitalism'. [Simpson, Peter. Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Op. cit.: 52.]
Copyright Ian Richards, 2012
This essay was collected in The Poor Itch: Essays in New Zealand Literature, Lonely Arts Publishing, Osaka, 2021.
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