Thursday, October 28, 2010

GRAVEL ROADS by Peter Butler

David Ling Publishers - $29.99

I had not heard of Peter Butler before I read this title although I see he has two previously published illustrated histories to his credit albeit some 30 years ago. I have to say that I am enormously impressed with his fiction debut. Strictly speaking it is a collection of short stories but they are all set in and around the same area in the South Island and are so interlinked that to me it seems it is almost a novel. I warmly recommend it to readers of this blog. We are going to hear more of Peter Butler.

It was launched in Nelson last weekend by master fiction writer Maurice Gee who kindly made his launch address available to The Bookman and it is with much pleasure that I am able to post it here on my blog. Take a few minutes off and treat yourself by reading it. He says it all really, and so very well:

"There are several reasons why I’m pleased to launch Gravel Roads.
The first is friendship. I met Peter Butler in 1975 in a library in Auckland where I worked. We talked for a while and I found him likeable and interesting, a history graduate who wanted to be a writer. The most interesting thing he said though was that he was heading out of Auckland to live again in his home town of Nelson, and I said, What a coincidence, my wife and I are shifting there in a couple of months. Peter said, Ah, walking by the Maitai – to which I replied, What’s the Maitai?

I know now. Margareta and I walk there daily. We call some of the ducks by their first names. I’ve also walked by the Kaituna in Golden Bay, on a track Peter built for the Forest Service many years ago – a lovely walk that I can recommend, just along from the Naked Possum café.

We stayed in Nelson and I got to know Peter better. We’ve been friends for 35 years. We still meet now and then for a beer and a chat. Sometimes we even talk about books.

Gravel Roads isn’t his first. In 1977 he wrote Opium and Gold, the story of the Chinese miners in New Zealand, and in 1980 edited The Life and Times of Te Rauparaha. I’ve brought them both along and you can have a look at them later on.
So it was an interesting beginning, but then there was nothing more for 30 years as Peter went off in other directions. Now we have Gravel Roads, his first work of fiction.

My other reason for being pleased to launch it is that I enjoyed reading it so much. The first good thing is the title – Gravel Roads. Most New Zealanders will get a little kick of nostalgic pleasure from that. I know I do. Gravel Roads wind through my early life. I grew up on one and I can still feel the dust between my toes and the stone bruises on my heels.

The next good thing is the whole thing – the fictional world Peter creates. Let’s start with place: Nelson, you think as you read along, Golden Bay, the West Coast – or any place in New Zealand once you leave the cities behind. Dusty roads, lonely rivers, quiet beaches, bush and broom and willows and orchards and country towns. Recognising these things was a major pleasure for me, but it’s a kind of generalised recognition – many places overlaying each other, not just one.

This river, you think, is the Aorere – but hold on, isn’t it the Takaka, or perhaps the Wairoa or the Roding or the Lee. It might even be the Buller. (Not the Maitai, I’m afraid – Peter doesn’t bring his people to towns as big as Nelson.) In fact it’s all of them, and probably others that will come to the minds of other readers. In the book it’s called the Ails River (spelt A-I-L-S not A-L-E-S). It’s another good name. And the town, although it might be Takaka or Collingwood or even Karamea over on the West Coast, is called Ailsford, and it too is all of those others.

There’s great pleasure in these recognitions – you get a sense of, This book is ours. All the details are right, they’re daily life. Peter doesn’t force anything, he lets it happen, he lets it be.

Then, of course, the people. They’re country people, and although they move around, and may vanish for years, they come back, they appear again, because the Ails Valley is their place and it, not the author, won’t let them get away. They are orchard workers, truck drivers, white-baiters, failed students, schoolteachers, children, lots of children, some of them damaged, doctors, librarians, layabouts and hippies. Some run businesses, some own land and work it, others own nothing and like it that way. It’s a rich cast list, producing many stories.

There’s a lot of activity in Gravel Roads, people doing things, and Peter knows exactly what. I won’t give you another list, just say, He knows how things work, cars especially, and all sorts of machinery. He knows country occupations, what people do, how they speak, what they feel about themselves and other people. It’s raw and close to the surface much of the time, feelings are close to breaking out and to being expressed in violent ways. Is this country life? I don’t know. Talking with a journalist the other day, Peter said that the hidden aspects of life bubble to the surface in the country, where perhaps people live barer lives. Well, maybe. But he makes it the life of this book and to me it’s entirely convincing – and if that gives you the idea that it’s just an outpouring you couldn’t be more wrong.

I’ll use the dreaded word and say it’s art – it’s all done with artistry, and with assurance, as though Peter were on his tenth book of fiction instead of his first. He knows exactly what to do, how much to say, how to simply suggest.

I was especially pleased by the way he ends many of the stories, leaving something unsaid, a sentence unwritten, that would have explained everything and ruined it. If you’re interested in that sort of thing you’ll get great pleasure from this book.

There’s also humour. There’s a lovely conversation piece, a middle-aged woman talking to he mother, whose mind is starting to go. The old lady is confused all right, she’s dotty, but when her memory functions she’s as sharp as a needle and she knows all the things that her daughter had supposed were safely hidden. It’s a beautifully told story that will make you laugh.

You’ll have noticed that I’m talking about stories when in fact Gravel Roads asks to be read as a novel. Actually it’s both. It’s linked stories held together by place and by the characters who appear and disappear, who drift in and drift away, and grow older and sometimes wiser and sometimes not.

More writers are doing this sort of thing. One Peter has acknowledged a debt to is the West Australian, Tim Winton, and in particular his book The Turning, and Gravel Roads does give one the same feeling – of community and danger and rawness and many other things – cruelty, greed, hunger, love, betrayal – the ingredients of fiction. Peter Butler can live in the company of Tim Winton.

I can’t finish without congratulating David Ling, the publisher of the book – and his designer too. Gravel Roads is a pleasure to look at and to hold. A great piece of book-making.

So, it’s launched. Just one thing more – the book has a dedication that reads: To all gravel roads people. I said earlier that either far back or right now we’re all gravel roads people – so this book is dedicated to us – and when you’re a dedicatee you’ve got to own a copy. The table is over there, manned by Page and Blackmore, who, I’d like to remind you, were recently voted the best booksellers in New Zealand. Gravel Roads will, I think, turn out to be a best book.
Congratulations, Peter. Your book is now on the water."

Photos below show Maurice Gee addressing the gathering and Peter Butler, that is him on the left, and friends.

No comments: