The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, by Tanya Moir (Random House/Vintage, 2015), 240 pp., $37.99
How do you write an entertaining, tender and emotionally pared-back story set against a background of family dysfunction, violence and sexual abuse? Tanya Moir has managed to achieve this and more in The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, a story about one boy’s escapism.
This is an easy-to-read realist novel with fantasy elements, where occasions of sexual abuse and even one of manslaughter are subtly foregrounded by, and ‘realistically’ woven through, the less weighty, even sometimes playful drama. It is a case of ‘less is more’ in terms of the narrative content in this story, and the suggestiveness of the traumas that impact on twelve-year-old Winstone are more powerful for what is not said or expressed. There is a palpable sense from early on that Winstone is internalising his awful recent past, and that he could/should/might have stronger outward reactions, but his being so gullible and innocent also makes perfect sense given the bleak lack of security and love in his young life. Moir shows great insight and restraint in dealing with the various possible reactions of a pre-teen boy under duress, and a lot of the grittiest drama occurs in the mind of the reader who fills in the lurid facts that young Winstone doesn’t see and can’t understand.
Winstone is named after Winstone Aggregates, as seen by his (now imprisoned) mother, painted on the sides of trucks in Otago. The surname Blackhat is Winstone’s ‘movie’ name (if he had a movie, that is). The story is divided into three strands that thread throughout the book, each contributing more or less to the trajectory of the story. There is Winstone ‘present’, roaming and lurking in the wild and rocky Central Otago terrain, living in caves and stealing food for reasons that at the beginning and for a while, are unknown but appealing; and there is Winstone ‘past’, which provides back-story and context, largely, showing that Winstone comes from a highly dysfunctional home and then a foster home before running away.
And then there is the other strand: the ‘Kid and Cooper’ story, which features a couple of ‘American’ fantasy characters and their hot-dry cowboy world. This narrative thread stems from Winstone’s love of cowboy and western cinema as well as his need for escapism, and perhaps also for a strong (and heroic) male role model. The book opens with rather emphatic cinematic references: ‘Blue brighter than Technicolor, wider than Panavision, It was universal. Paramount.’ Then: ‘Time lapsed’. And a few lines down: ‘Cooper and the Kid were dust, shadows in the film grain.’
This sets the tone for Winstone’s fantasy-world, and encodes his understandable aversion to reality. The opening promises a thorough preoccupation with cinema, but the story doesn’t pan out that way. The filmic language comes back from time to time in Winstone’s musings, but not as forcefully as at the beginning.
More of these filmic/western references blended into Winstone’s thoughts throughout the book might have made it clear that his interior world co-exists with his outer reality as a kind of safe filter through which he chooses to see the world. But the Kid and Cooper sections, relatable as they are, seem to shed their location in Winstone’s interior/fantasy-life early on, becoming an alternate but distracting ‘real’ space and time; less fantasy than another, sometimes unrelated, reality. However, these passages finally do become more relevant as Winstone, increasingly, dreams himself into that fantasy story (as ‘Winstone Blackhat’), and eventually all narrative threads flow in sync, making very good sense towards the end.
Winstone’s young life is littered with tragedy, and from these circumstances Moir develops a story that is eerie, sweet, funny and richly visual. It never becomes emotionally impossible, or unpalatable – a danger with such intense themes – nor is it ever gratuitous (other than the western sections, perhaps, at times). In fact, the horrors that an adult reader discerns are more powerful with such subtle telling, and much of the implied trauma forms a putrefying trail of experience and knowledge leading through the pages, while Winstone gains more and more of our pity even as he acts out the dysfunctions from his family of origin. But despite the tragic circumstances, it is the innocent and humorous ‘essence of childhood’ that directs the tonal character of the book. The best of this is shown in passages that express the creative and matter-of-fact manner with which Winstone’s young mind works:
It was hard to live like an outlaw inside a TOTAL FIRE BAN. (p. 13)
A lot of Cowboys and Indians too, might have stayed alive if they hadn’t spent so much time silhouetted against the horizon. (pp. 50–51)
And in opening a present from his grown-up friend Zane, Winstone ‘skinned the box’, which is an excellent bit of characterisation.
There are, however, a few examples of overwriting: the ‘voice’ is meant to show – and most often does – Winstone’s twelve-year-old point of view, but the authorial voice occasionally intrudes, albeit in very nicely written passages of text:
Rain fell thick and thunderous over the range and ran off the overhanging rock and sputtered fatly. (p. 51)
Anniversary, a long cold word, a line of traps around a silence. (p. 83)
Tanya Moir, then, presents us with a moral question of gravity and significance: how can Winstone (or anyone) become a well-functioning human being after such a shitty start in life? But Winstone survives, albeit meagerly and naïvely, while being far too ‘informed’ about life’s underbelly, and he fantasises richly, even necessarily, because of what he experiences. Moir shows that the greatest tragedy of all is that Winstone doesn’t know any other way, doesn’t really know how well-functioning people live and how they should treat each other. This deficit in his knowledge might also be some small comfort for us all.
Moir makes no judgment on Winstone. The boy is a shrewd survivor, and the reader withholds judgment on his thieving and other shenanigans because we relate him to the child in us, and pity him, while not condoning his major crime. Society judges him enough and will no doubt inflict punitive measures (when and if they catch him), but Moir paints him, delicately and earnestly, as a tragic victim of abuse. What Winstone’s crime reveals in the story, and how the story is changed from then on, is very well managed. When ‘it’ happens I felt great sadness for both the victim and for Winstone the perpetrator; but there is also a greater and resonant frustration at the general way of things: that children suffer because the people around them suffered as children, and because society is so ill-equipped to deal with its mounting social issues. The overarching question addressed in this novel is: how can a mistreated child treat others well (without significant interventions)? You tend to become what you see, do, hear and believe … It suffices to say, without revealing any more, that this weighty conundrum is handled with finesse in a mostly excellent narrative about young Winstone Blackhat’s plight.
TASHA HAINES is a Wellington-based writer with a background in fine arts (MFA from Elam at Auckland University). She is currently working on a PhD (through Deakin University, Melbourne) in modernist literary fiction.