Monday, August 22, 2016

"Mean" by Michael Botur - a tough but rewarding read

Mean: Short Stories, by Michael Botur (200 pp), available from

 reviewed by Tim Jones

Gritty social realism isn’t usually my cup of tea. Mention it in a New Zealand context, and I am transported in a flash of grey back to the 1950s and 1960s, turning up in Coal Flat with a case of conscience and a teaching job, about to be marooned in monochrome.

The stories in Mean are gritty social realism, so I wasn’t sure how much the book would appeal to me. But social realism has gone urban since the days of Coal Flat, and that’s where Mean is located: the underbelly of New Zealand’s towns and cities. So it’s the realism of DJs and remixes, drugs and needles, shit and piss and cum.

The danger of any work of fiction so focused on one milieu is that it becomes repetitive – even Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, a Booker Prize winner and a great novel, might go on one or two drug deals and assassinations too long. But Michael Botur brings enough variety to the stories that, for the most part, they held my interest.

My favourite story in Mean is “Body Without A Head”. Jezz depends on music so much she convinces herself she’s a musician, in a scene that shows a lyricism underlying the harsh surface of the story:

She sits on ProTools for entire seasons made only of night, tinkering, making mistakes, getting pissed off, going out clubbing at the deep end of the night, forgetting everything except the chests in front of her. Finally her wake-up coincides with a sunrise…. She loves having sticky Red Bull on her throat, loves finding lemon seeds and straws in her pockets and losing credit cards and finding all the cigarettes in her handbag crushed and wondering where all the Durex went.

It all ends in tears, of course, but at least for a few moments Jezz gets out from under her brother’s thumb and sees her dreams realised. Those moments of hope may have been illusory, but I welcomed them all the same.

Michael Botur knows the mean streets of the big city well, and he writes about them with wit, compassion and insight. That makes Mean a tough but rewarding read.



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