Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nick Earls - The Story of Butterfish

It is always a delight reading a Nick Earls novel, because he manages to be so real in the presentation of his characters. Until this one, all of the novels I've read have involved people in the medical profession (presumably because that is his own background). There has always been a fair amount of music in his novels but this time round, the central character (Curtis Holland) IS a musician - he played keyboards for recently broken up band Butterfish (which has made a career out of very popular "over-ripe overblown ballads" and then made the fatal third album which was "pretentious and directionless at the same time") and is back in Brisbane, trying to work out how to live.

Being the keyboard player for a band that has sold 20 million CD's has insulated him from any such need in the past (and even when in the band, he could leave most responsibility to others, particularly front-man Derek). He's very rich but is still working, now with a commission to produce music for a Scandinavian band. One consequence of this is that the novel is full of music talk, both about bands and about the actual making of music.

Curtis makes a surprisingly good fist of this new life, considering his reputation as being a "shit communicator" and what he has to deal with. His father has died, his brother is recently single, his neighbours require careful negotiation and then Derek comes back to town.

The novel starts with Annaliese coming into his life. She's the girl from next door, sixteen, a "confounding mixture" of self-assuredness and fragility looking for her missing not so bright dog, Oscar, although "he's never really got that". Later on, he spots her coming up the street, her hands playing an imaginary keyboard:
she was concentrating, playing precise notes. Not with great feeling, but marking them out neatly as if she might come back later and put more into it. Then she noticed me and her fingers sprung back from the keys and her hands turned into two fists that dropped to her sides. She was holding onto the very slender hope that I had seen none of it.... The air keyboard player can only surrender. There is no other choice.
They come to spend quite a lot of time together - she hangs out in his studio where its air-conditioned, gets involved in his music. I particularly enjoyed their conversations, there's lots of playful teasing between them, although the dialogue is spot on throughout. The blurb makes it plain that something happens between the two of them, but for once we have a muso who acts responsibly. He is very fond of Annaliese, thinks that if she were only 25 it would not be a problem, but she's too young at 16. So, there's a bit of a startled rejection scene, leaving him wanting and needing to "put some kind of patch on the hole it had left in how she felt about herself".

Her brother, Mark, is 14: apparently a stereotypical sullen teenager, playing computer games and dressed in black with inappropriate facial adornments. Curtis's first assessment is that he would have hated Butterfish on principle, too close to pop and insufficiently evil: "fourteen year old boys with nails through their ears had taken it upon themselves to be our natural enemies". But Mark has great commercial instincts - I loved his negotiation of the deal to mow Curtis's lawn - is a talented although disturbing writer, and turns out to have a secret plan which is really quite lovely. He and Curtis turn out to have quite a surprising rapport.

They are both summarised as "complicated people", neither children nor adults with
lives full of negotiations and power shifts and forced trips across town, and hormones and wild ideas. Everything was to be tested - themselves, the inconsistencies the world offered them every day.
Then there's their mum, Kate. She does the neighbourly thing and invites Curtis over to dinner:
"I was just swearing at the meal when you came in."
"As long as it didn't swear back, I think we're okay."
"You'll never hear it with the oven door shut."
Sure, it may not be highbrow literature, but for suburban Brisbane, this seems to me to be perfect in its naturalness. She's a "crap" cook but Curtis is kind, blames her tools - there's an amusing scene when she uses what Curtis says is a comedy knife stolen from a clown to cut (or at least bruise) mushrooms. Somewhere along the line, he has learned to be a great cook, so he helps her out and they go on a shopping expedition to buy a proper knife. This reminds me: there were two aspects I didn't like about the book - he made this absolutely delicious sounding curry that left me salivating and wrote so convincingly about a particular kitchen knife that I have to get one!

Because Curtis has been away so long, and his dad has just died, he needs to get re-acquainted with his brother, Patrick, and with the idea of family, albeit a family of just two. Curtis is no rockstar to Patrick, just the little brother, so Curtis spends a fair while sparring with him, taking pre-emptive (conversational) strikes against him so he won't be bested. Things get better when Curtis learns that Patrick has separated from his partner, asks if this is when he says he never liked him (the partner, Blaine), thought him a narcissist:
"Oh, God. He had so little to be narcissistic about. And yet he managed, against such odds..."
"And you have much more to be narcissistic about than he does."
"I've always thought that."
The coolest thing about their relationship are the revelations - both about how they saw their own and each other's childhoods - and about the secret life of their dad (who had a mad scheme pretty well developed to put on an opera about an early explorer, Sturt). Once they learn he'd been on internet dating sights, they develop a running joke about him having a mail order Russian bride.

Derek is the one character who is closest to being a caricature but even he has his moments. He "has a big mortgage on the whole rockstar clich
é" and really has only one layer at most times. But he's back because his dad might die, and that brings the meagre best out of him (after he and Curtis have a ridiculous fight in the street).

Oddly enough, this book shares something with the last book I wrote about: it was also a play. Here is the author talking about the creative process.



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