29 April 2013

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Predicament (1974)

Predicament was the third Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel to be published, although it was a posthumous publication: in a minor way, his comment to Maurice Shadbolt, that he feared he would be 'one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they're dead', had come true.

Morrieson has been mentioned by some reviewers as a writer of Taranaki Gothic. Shadbolt writes a six-page Introduction to this edition, in which he speaks of his first-hand knowledge of Morrieson and speaks about the occasion that he asked Shadbolt what Southern Gothic is, as a 'professor bloke' representing Australian Broadcasting had asked him if he was influenced by it, and Morrieson merely pretended that he knew what it is. Shadbolt mentioned William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and Calder Willingham in his reply, although I'd have thought that Erskine Caldwell definitely deserves a mention as a comparison, but it seems that Morrieson hadn't read any of these authors.

Significantly, Morrieson asks if these writers make the reader smile, as he can't bear the idea of reading books that don't do so. Here we probably have a strong indication of Morrieson's aesthetic as a writer, as Predicament has a similar quality to The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday in that it is a blend of the serious and the amusing, giving it a kind of cartoon quality.

Predicament has a teenage protagonist like The Scarecrow, although he is not the narrator. Fifteen-year-old Cedric Williamson meets Mervyn Toebeck, who almost certainly has just killed his abusive meths addict father, and, as he meets Mervyn's friend the Spook, the respectable, bookish schoolboy will be led into a number of predicaments.

Cedric, like Mervyn, is an outsider, which is one of the reasons why he relates to Mervyn, but his home life is very different: he lives with his loving grandmother and his father Martin, whose mental balance has been upset as a result of a fall, and who for years has been building a strange tall wooden tower in front of his house, much to the annoyance of neighbours.

Rather reluctantly, Cedric gets drawn into blackmail with Mervyn and the Spook, although their victim Blair Bramwell (who is carrying out a secret affair with his young step-mother Margot) decapitates the intruding Spook. And Cedric is in a predicament.

All this sounds rather gruesome and sordid, but it is Morrieson's usual light ways of handling the subject matter that take the seriousness out of it. Perhaps a comparison with the Coen Brothers's treatment of the balance between the violent and the comical isn't irrelevant here, especially as Morrieson's influences seem as much (if not more) indebted to celluloid as opposed to print.

On the back cover of this Penguin New Zealand edition is a one-sentence quotation from the book: 'On the Sunday afternoon, Mervyn Toebeck gate-crashed his life', which is an image that is repeated later in the book, and for me this is a key to understanding it. Throughout the book, other people intrude on each other and 'gate-crash' either physically or mentally (or very often both) into other people's lives, although it is perhaps particularly the mental gate-crashing that we witness. And that gate-crashing can be active or passive, because Morrieson depicts an environment in which people are very strongly affected by the very presence of others.

A very interesting article about Morrieson's novels, with particular (and detailed) reference to Predicament (especially to that novel seen as social satire) is here: Ian Richards's Predicament in Context.

My other blog posts on Morrieson's work:

Ronald Hugh Morrieson in Hawera, Taranaki, New Zealand
Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Came a Hot Friday (1964)
Ronald hugh Morrieson: The Scarecrow (1963)
Julia Millen: Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography (1996)

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