16 April 2013

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Came a Hot Friday (1964)

Ronald Hugh Morrieson's novel Came a Hot Friday (like his début The Scarecrow, which I shall review a little later after re-reading) is a strange mixture of thriller and comedy punctuated by speech very often in the New Zealand vernacular. It seems more intricately structured, though, with chapters seen from the points of view of different characters who will interweave with others.
The blurb on the back of this retro New Zealand Penguin edition seems doubtful about how to sum the book up, and I can understand the problem: it's about Morrie Shalapeski, who sets fire to premises he doesn't realize a man is sleeping in; and Wes Pennington and his chum Cyril Kiddman (incorrectly spelt in the blurb), who start a lucrative betting scam; and Don Jackson (perhaps an older version of The Scarecrow's Neddy Poindexter), who is out to lose his virginity; and Sel Bishop, the violent bookie who has no concern for anyone but himself and how much money he can make; and the absurd but highly sympathetic Te Whakinga Kid, who is a mock-Zorro who pretends so much that things become real.
They are all brought together in some way: the man Morrie (eventually) accidentally kills is Pop Simon, whom he knows and likes, and who is known by his boss's wife's friend; Don becomes the third partner in Wes and Cyril's betting scam; Morrie was paid for the arson by the evil Sel Bishop, who towards the end tries to burn Morrie, Wes, and his own girlfriend Claire (who is also Morrie's sister).
Oddly, perhaps, almost all of the characters (with the notable exceptions of the bookies Bishop and Cray) are seen in a sympahetic light, often as wounded victims of a life without mercy in which they have to feed their addictions – usually by getting as hopelessly drunk as possible as often as possible, or (to a lesser extent) by extreme gambling. The narrator is aware of the extent of the self-destruction (and seems particularly knowledgeable about the effects of alcohol) but appears to see this behaviour as natural, or at least unavoidable.
A special mention should go to the Te Wakinga Kid, the Māori who dresses as a cowboy and uses a cap gun. He is a fusion of a pretend bandit and a pretend sheriff, who – as deus ex machina – transforms himself (for the reader and for the characters he rescues from otherwise certain death) instantly into a real hero. Right at the end of the book though – leaving with the swag – he sees himself as a real bandit only and throws away his sheriff badge: he has grown up and overcome superstition.
But, as the last page seems to say, he's just a scared kid after all: he has been as self-deceived about his new role as he was about his former ones.
My other blog posts on Morrieson:

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Predicament (1974)
Julia Millen: Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography (1996)

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