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Spare Prick at a Funeral

'DRY BREAD' By Owen Marshall
VINTAGE 2007 (RRP $28), Reviewed by DAVID GEARY

drybread.jpg Owen Marshall's new novel, DRYBREAD, is frank and funny. A wry meditation on how we come together and fall apart. It revolves around Christchurch print journo, Theo Esler. He has the scoop on Penny Maine-King, an ex-pat Kiwi who's done a runner from a messy custody battle in a Californian court. She's taken her young son to hide out in an isolated Central Otago cottage, near where she grew up. Her American husband has a US court order to get the kid back, and set a New Zealand private investigator on her trail. But Theo is the missing woman's only point of contact, and her possible saviour. That's if he can write the features that will swing the NZ family court in Penny's favour.

That's the foreground. The real story is how Theo is dealing with the fallout from his own divorce two years ago. In short, he's not. The high drama of developing a relationship with the fugitive Penny gives Theo a chance to work it all out. And so he comes to a dawning realisation that he might be a bit of a self-centred deluded dick. But who isn't? I liked Theo a lot. His self-importance, his lack of awareness, his hatred of colleagues who torture the company car's gearbox while he maintains an Audi fetish.

Marshall is revered as a master of the short story who some feel hasn't been able to extend himself to the long form. But I found this novel quite complete, perceptive and powerful. And sexy and hilarious a lot of the time. There's hitchhikers who don't wash and smell of plum jam. Theo's trip to a massage parlour to find the masseuse's Dad is running the front desk, and that the girls have to slip out to help the old guy with the credit card machine, is brilliant farce. And I loved the details of a journo's daily bread - long treks across country to cover Kiwis Against Windfarms protests, and having to endure various windbags, most notably your insensitive feminist colleague who keeps telling you how well your ex-wife is doing.

Quibbles? The title. Who wants to eat Drybread? Yet the book itself is a tasty treat. It's the name of the abandoned goldfield settlement where Theo visits Penny. Marshall goes to great lengths, and good effect, to evoke the landscape. For me, however, the finer gold is found in his description of Theo's newspaper office, with its views of the back of a pet shop. And how the journos, all in search of "the big story", instead get to witness the comic-dramas of spilt kitty litter.

The cover reinforces we are entering a barren world - the standard lonely country road devoid of people. However, the book itself is populated with engaging characters. There's Nicholas the world weary senior journo, whose creed is - "Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you." The parson-like private eye provides a hint of Kiwi noir, with Penny as a possible femme fatale. And then there's the diminutive Melanie, who edits a community newspaper, and seems to be Theo's bootie call as part of her ongoing community service...but could she be something more?

The writer negotiates the minefield of office and sexual politics with a deft touch, making wry and telling observations as he goes - What passes between a man and a woman is a fluctuating charge, and never fully decipherable.

His powers are greatest in such ironic delights as when Theo finds himself the spare prick at a funeral, suffering the attentions of Gillian, a friend of his ex-wife: Theo was aware of her unabashed and intent scrutiny. She was looking for evidence of his life since splitting with Stella: the stains of takeaway meals perhaps, unchecked nasal hair, the false ebullience of incipient alcoholism and the scorch of indulgence on his breath.
So painful, and true, and witty, and wise.

Short of renaming this book Wry Bread, and slapping on a colourful cover of a vibrant NZ newspaper office, the best I can do is recommend this as a damn good read, and proof positive that Owen Marshall is among our top novelists and this book of one of the best of 07.

David Geary is an all-rounder. He writes for theatre, television and film. He's also an actor, teacher, poet and fiction writer. His collection of inter-linked short stories A MAN OF THE PEOPLE was published by VUP in 2003. He is the Writer in Residence at Victoria University, working on a play about Mark Twain's 1895 lecture tour of New Zealand, and a children's play about a tuatara.

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