The Demolition of the Century, by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin, 2013), 408 pp., $30
Tom Spotswood (a.k.a. William McGinty) is an insurance investigator who has lost his socks, his suitcase, his career, his ex-wife and, most importantly, his son, Frank.
He is being followed by Robert Valentine, the mysterious owner of the horse with no sperm; Alastair Shook and his van of teenage guards; and Spud, a demolition man who is using his wrecking ball to bring down the most beautiful movie theatre in town, the Century.
To find his son Tom will have to come to terms with his past – a past he ran away from. But first he will have to find those socks.
… So goes the blurb on the back cover of The Demolition of the Century by Duncan Sarkies, and after reading that blurb, you might expect a lot of laugh-out-loud material and a rather concise and snappy wee comedic romp – I did.
It is worth mentioning at the outset that Sarkies has an impressive back history of literary achievement: he wrote the screenplay for the highly successful Scarfies. He also wrote a few episodes of the Flight of the Conchords, a play, and a previous novel Two Little Boys, which was also made into a film.
The Demolition of the Century, Sarkies’ second novel, is told in sections assigned to each of the two main characters: Tom, who starts out in the story as a larrikin of undisclosed age and questionable moral aptitude, and Spud, a highly anxious hoarder and demolition man with an ailing (female) wrecking ball machine called T-Rex. Spud is employed in the business of demolishing the Century theatre throughout much of the book. Each section is told in the first-person present tense, which is brave, but runs into awkwardness at times as it has the feel of the character walking around with a video recorder making a commentary: ‘now I go there, now I go here’. Sarkies manages it okay, but it adds some claustrophobia to the scenes.
The story is based nowhere, anywhere, or everywhere, with no obvious basis in non-fiction or autobiography other than in the case of certain emphases and aspects of repetition that spark up suspicion. The undefined place/s this book inhabits is some sort of hybrid American-Kiwi-type place that ducks and dives between feeling distinctly American near its opening and in the Tom sections in particular, and then far more Kiwi in the Spud sections. There are other near-references to actual places such as the Mountain Peaks’ café (the Matterhorn in Wellington?), and The Mount Elizabeth bus tunnel (Mt Victoria bus tunnel?), Freyberg (Freyberg park and sports centre Wellington?), Eddington Trotting Club (Addington Raceway Christchurch?). I’m not sure why Sarkies would do this except that he might want to tease us by suggesting or implying locations but also keep us guessing (there are some Melbourne street names in there too I believe). The litany of particular New Zealand points of reference might also suggest an element of autobiography.
I assumed in the Spud sections that the story was set in New Zealand, but if the idea is that the story is ‘anywhere’ or in a generic Kiwi-ish place, then as a reader I am required to suspend my need for groundedness. There are only dead-end hints that throw me off the scent and make the otherwise utilitarian but catchy story rather suffocating or claustrophobically disorientating. It is as if a major piece of the puzzle is being withheld (where the hell am I?), which makes it difficult to empathise as much as I’d like to. The movie Scarfies, by comparison, was steeped in place, the story existed because of the place, and it worked terrifically well.
There is a lot of concrete and straightforward stuff here though: characters are likeable and mostly believable, time passes in a standard manner, and the palette of events while all fairly humdrum can be related to: mid-life crisis, bad marriage, over-indulgence, waning sex, father/child issues, the problem of aging, and the evils of gambling …
Near the beginning of The Demolition of the Century, the writing reminded me of Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, but without that book’s finesse or sharp ironic voice and even pace. The gags in Sarkies’ book feel slightly old hat, perhaps on purpose for stylistic effect, as if the author has indirectly modelled his pacing and delivery after vintage Woody Allen or Seinfeld with slapstick gags, pathos, chase scenes et al and relatively predictable (comforting and G-rated) outcomes.
But once it finds its stride, the Spud sections are entertaining. I empathise with his at times cute or humorous struggle with anxiety, and we find out why he suffers this. And because Spud is obviously a Kiwi, I feel I know where I am with him, despite Sarkies screwing with the place names. Spud talks lyrically of the beauty of the building he is about to demolish, like a hunter in awe of a deer he’s about to kill; he says he can’t wait to get stuck into ‘her’.
Tom is believable for quite some time as a larrikin gambler and drinker with dodgy mates, who witnesses something illegal in the horse breeding game then goes awol because of it. Later Tom ‘loses’ his young son Frank, and it is that thread about the lost boy that the story follows with regular reference to the mysterious Robert Valentine and Alistair Shook, who both turn out to be something other than what is expected. Also other than what is expected are the facts around the lost Frank. Spoiler alert!! Frank turns out to be Spud (exactly halfway through the book), and the lives of loopy old Tom the father and anxious Frank/Spud the son overlap increasingly, their sections becoming shorter and shorter like a bottle-necking climax until they connect. But I don’t think the book gains anything from withholding the facts until so far in. The first half grows tedious as I wait for the clanger that must arrive – and then doesn’t for far too long.
There are strong parallels between Spud’s life and Tom’s, in terms of failing (but not failed) relationships in particular. Spud is looking for the missing Tom, and Tom is missing while looking for young Frank. Tom winds up kidnapping ‘Frank’, but it is actually Lucy, Spud’s daughter that he snatches. Spud’s wife Kimbo says, in a neat inversion of the usual way of things apropos parents and children: ‘Your father is out there on the Streets. He needs you’ (p. 210). Tom is losing his marbles and has forgotten that Frank grew up.
The strongest aspect of this story is the reveal about old age and the idea that left unattended, regrets will fester. It becomes apparent that this theme is encoded in the title of the book. For much of the story I was wondering what it was about, hoping that it might work up to a grand theme about the demise of the twentieth century until, through twists and turns that take up far too many chapters, it becomes clear that it is largely and significantly about aging badly and the father/child tussle. Sarkies is working out both the humour and the sadness in these themes.
Sadness and loss thread Sarkies’ saga throughout and arrest the lightness that seems to want to shine more than it does, and yet the story is not sad or tragic enough to be a profound portrayal of aging and the father/son tussle. There are poignant moments but the timbre of the book isn’t consistently one thing or another. There are also funny suggestive vignettes about old folks’ homes and delusional behaviour – which are well-told.
The Demolition of the Century is an entertaining novel, if you don’t mind the feeling of disorientation. The humour, as previously indicated, feels quite Jewish-American in the Tom sections; and while appealing, this is confusing in the presumably Kiwi setting, and the humour turns short-lived when the navel-gazing and introspection reappear each time.
Fortunately there are some lovely and witty exchanges and one-liners that do the Sarkies of his past literary outings proud. On page 25: ‘Eddy is a Sri Lanken rapscallion.’ On page 87: ‘When I finally dial him he says “Hello”, the phone switches off again, and I yell, “fuckin stupid piece of shit!” at it. I reach into the glove box and give myself a quick spray of rescue remedy.’ On page 151, a policewoman says to the other two, ‘I’ll handle this okay?’ And the other policewoman says, ‘What’ll I type into the palmtop?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I’m not putting in an incomplete.’
‘Check the complete box and just write up the details under Notes.’
‘How do I do that?’
‘Control shift N.’
‘Which one’s control?’
‘The one with the squiggle.’
On page 162: ‘I walk up to the front counter and a homosexual with a head set says to me, “Welcome to the police. How can I help you?”’ Finally, on page 328: ‘WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY SON, YOU FUCK?’ Tom yells to Spud. It is the book’s big irony. This occurs when Spud tries to force Tom to look at himself in the mirror and face who he is.
The first person Duncan Sarkies thanks in his acknowledgements is ‘Tom Waits (an incredible influence on me)’. Sarkies and Waits have both darkness and humour in common, but Tom Waits is so thoroughly well versed in ‘place’, and my, how that helps:
Well, Frank settled down in the Valley / and he hung his wild years / on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead. / He sold used office furniture / out there on San Fernando Road … (‘Frank’s Wild Years’)
Fade out the gravelly, cement-mixer voice.
TASHA HAINES has a Master of Fine Arts from Elam at the University of Auckland. Formerly a lecturer in fine arts and design in Melbourne, she is now a writer, reviewer and tutor living in Wellington.