By Alan Duff
Random House, $34.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino in the Herald on Sunday, 30 November and is reproduced here with her permission.
There was a danger Alan Duff was going to end up being known mainly for the debts and controversy he has mired himself in so Dreamboat Dad, his first novel in six years, is a welcome reminder of who he really. Its first few pages seem off-kilter though. Many of the words Duff puts in the mouths of his characters sound more like his own than true to who they are – something he’s been criticised for with previous books. And then Duff hits his stride. Yes, he’s up on his soapbox, hectoring the reader. He has an enduring message about Maori pride and self-reliance and he’s not going to miss an opportunity to get it across. But the coming-of-age story he has created around those themes is raw, powerful and compelling.
Set in a post-war fictionalised version of Rotorua, Dreamboat Dad is the story of a boy called Yank, so-named because his mother conceived him during a passionate infidelity with an American soldier while her husband was away fighting. Yank grows up an outsider in his own home, fantasising about his real father as a cowboy hero or John Wayne in a marine outfit. As he dives from the bridge for tourist pennies, his dream is that one day his father will come to claim him.
It’s when Yank finds out the unexpected truth about his father that Duff’s writing really begins to fly. He piles on the words, his trademark fast-paced, choppy monologues becoming poetic, almost singsong, as he takes us to the deep south of America and shows us the worst of racism and prejudice. It’s as though, in freeing himself from dealing directly with Maori lives and culture, and taking his story into this new context, Duff’s writing can grow more powerful.
Some familiar issues are revisited in Dreamboat Dad, dysfunctional families and the culture of violence for example, and it’s as hard-hitting and unapologetic as you’d expect. But in many ways this is a hopeful book.
While Duff may alienate at times with an agenda it’s impossible to ignore, the fact remains that the man knows how to tell a memorable story. Whether this one helps him much in his goal of clearing a $3 million property development debt remains to be seen. But if financial disaster is what it took to get the 58-year-old author writing again then perhaps it wasn’t entirely a disaster after all. Whether or not you agree with his perspective, our country’s literature needs a voice this courageous.
Reviewed by NZ author Nicky Pellgrino whose new novel The Italian Wedding will be published by Hachette Livre in April 2009.