Hue & Cry

Launch Speech

For The Mermaid Boy by John Summers
Given by Lawrence Patchett
7 May, Unity Books, Wellington
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Hello everyone. Great to see you all here. Thank you for coming. And thank you to Unity Books. I've been working with Hue & Cry for quite a few years now, and I must say that this event is a lot fancier than some of the Hue & Cry launches we had back in the early days. Not so cramped, not so grimy. You can actually drink out of a proper wine glass. Very classy. So thanks Unity Books.
     I'm just so excited to be launching this book tonight. I'm excited because this book is innovative and quite unlike anything I've read before, and an important addition to our literature. Now I'm bound to say that, because I'm standing here not only as the editor of this book and a long-time admirer of John's work, but also as his mate.
     But I think it's precisely because I've watched his work develop over that time that I find this book so exciting. John's range of skills has expanded considerably. He's become a more versatile writer, and a braver one, and we can see all that reflected in this book.
     One of the first stories of John's I edited is about John's grandfather, or Garg, as he's called in this book. I remember being completely stunned by this story. I could talk about it for hours, but I'll just say this. Garg is like someone from Sargeson. He defines himself through work, not talk. And when he does speak, it's to say things like, 'He didn't, did he?'
     I'm sure we can all remember someone like that, who said things like that, but the extraordinary thing the story does - and this book as a whole - is to capture the passing of people like Garg out of our culture. It's a subtle thing, and it's haunting, and for that achievement alone, I think this book makes a rare contribution to our literature.

True entertainment

But there's much more than just that style of character and story represented here. Probably the element that hits you first in The Mermaid Boy is the comedy. This is a very funny book. Several times when I was working on the manuscript, I was laughing so hard and for so long that I disturbed my partner, who was working in another part of the house, and she called out, 'What the heck is going on out there?'
     But this book is much more than just 'funny'. The humour is always laced with irony and subtle commentary, and it's often piercingly sad at the same time.
     I guess I'm saying that these stories are truly entertaining, in the fullest sense of that word; in the way that Michael Chabon uses it, when he says that short-fiction writers must entertain their readers by gripping their attention, moving their emotions, and delighting their intellect through literary form.
     The Mermaid Boy does all those things, but this book is nonfiction. And it's the real central character called 'John' we form an attachment to. It's his emotional life we become invested in. At first, we barely notice this happening. This is a narrator who never announces himself too loudly. He sneaks up on us. Often the focus appears to be on other people, the louder and more colourful secondary characters: his violent neighbours and his perverted workmates.
     By contrast, 'John' is often a more watchful presence. He tends to hesitate. To borrow a metaphor from early in the book, he tends to wait for other people to break a hole in the fence that exists between him and the world before venturing through that hole himself, taking care not to catch his clothes on the boards as he steps through.
     Of course, we're all a bit like that. We can't always just find those routes out into the world on our own. Sometimes we need someone else to show us where they are, to go through them first. It's one of the reasons why we have older brothers, and friends, even grandfathers.

Interrogating Kiwi myths

     It's also one of the reasons our culture manufactures and hands down myths about how we can take on the world: get a job in the real world, learn practical skills, go overseas and 'get experience'. Doing these things, we're told, will help us navigate the weird and formless world that is out there.
     Another reason why I think this book is so important to our literature, and our culture, is because it interrogates many of those great Kiwi myths. It asks what we really learn from travel, for instance, what we really learn from sweeping floors for 40 hours a week - even if we can tell ourselves there's honour and value in doing those things.
     The key to doing this well, when writing within the parameters of non-fiction, I think, is to write with an extraordinary kind of honesty, in its fullest sense. I don't mean just that, in looking back at these experiences, the writer decides not to make stuff up, not to turn them into fiction. Instead, the writer has to refuse self-regard. To refuse to romanticise their own behaviour, to make himself seem nobler than he was.
     Instead, he admits to being a bit scared and a bit thrilled to be hitchhiking all over New Zealand, trusting his own safety to complete strangers - a decision that doesn't always work out well. In travelling to China, he was a bit adventurous and a bit self-serving. A bit arrogant, maybe.
     The moment where he makes this acknowledgment is a climactic moment of character growth. After a long time, he has learnt to recognise what's most important to him, and how to get it for himself. As the saying goes, he has worked out how to get over himself - and his hang-ups. All those ideas that we tell ourselves about what we should be doing.

A probing kind of honesty

And, typically for this book, the moment where that finally occurs sneaks up on us. I'll just quote some of it, to finish. This happens in China, and after he's been sick. And bear in mind that the only reason that he and his partner are there at all, really, is because back in New Zealand he suffered from existential restlessness, and turned to the idea of yet another overseas trip to solve it.
     'When we get home,' I said, sitting up in bed, 'I never want to travel again.'
     'No, it's true. I'm going to stay home and read books. I'm not even going to go out on Saturday night. I'm going to stay home and listen to that old person's request show on National Radio.'
     'That's okay with me,' she said. 'That's all I ever want to do anyway.'
     It takes real craft and courage to write like that - to write so clearly and intelligently about ourselves, and the things that are closest to us. It takes a probing kind of honesty, in its fullest sense. And I think it's this extraordinary restraint of ego that makes The Mermaid Boy, as non-fiction, so unique.
     That's all I want to say. All I can do now is urge you to discover this extraordinary book for yourselves. Congratulations, John, and I wish you and your book very well: I hope it travels widely. All the best, mate.

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