Greyhound by Sid Marsh, Wooden Shed, ISBN9780473200008, RRP$39.99, Available now.
I have to admit, this novel was a strange beast for me to review. As unsure as I was when I first saw it, I’m even more unsure now I’ve actually read it.
Imagine a war yarn written in authentic war-time Kiwi slang, detail heaped upon detail, with shades of both Catch-22 and All Quiet on the Western Front and a sense for the reader of a Pynchonesque “What the hell is going on”… yeah, you can see why I’m unsure.
Greyhound follows a Kiwi tanker crew (Dad, Mutha, Digs, Smiler and Reay, I think ), as the Allies make their way slowly but surely up the Italian front, ending in Trieste where they become mired in post-war politics, dealing with Jugoslav communists.
Along the way we read of their trials with the officers (or orifices, as they’re referred to..), their lives pre-war and their potential lives post-war. And did I mention the authentic Kiwi slang? It’s so thick I’ve may have got the plot ENTIRELY wrong.
This is definitely one of the novels to which you just have to apply the term “tour de force” but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s not easy to read, care of the language, however if you persevere it takes on a hum and a pace all its own, and becomes almost lyrical. In this way it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon – written in an exacting and often confounding 18th century english manner – after a while it all starts to make a sort of sense. Or at least you think it is, so you go along with it.
“DAD, DAD. He just called you a hostile monopolist pig,” translated Reay. “Something about how the National Liberation Movement grinds slowly, but it grinds to dust. Can’t figure that one out, he’s lost me. Hang on, there’s more. Something about your mum being the whore of a Chetnik – and I don’t know if I’ve got this entirely right – your cattle being dwarf Herefords, scrawny as, crammed agin gate… awaiting feed-out of hay… while his Black Buggers are out there foraging for themselves and putting on poundage… on a farm, somewhere near the Bulgarian border. There may well be a few macrocarpa trees in the package too. Definitely shoddy fences and lots of Taranaki gates, mate.”
The coaster paused before adding, “DAD, HE JUST INSULTED YOU, TO YOUR FACE.”
There’s plenty of tank action, more than the odd grotesque war-is-hell moment and it has that a genuine depressingly joyous tone (yes, I said that right), much like the old soldier who tells you all about that time he got stuck in a foxhole surrounded by Germans, as if he was having the time of his life. He probably was. No one said that it was the BEST time of his life. There’s also plenty of black humour and a very observant eye, particularly in the poetic descriptions of New Zealand and Italian countryside.
All the way back to Tauranga – recalling how her tongue had probed his mouth – he noticed for the first time ever the surrealistic shapes and colours of Life: the browns of dairy streams; different shades of green of the various weeds dotting the paddocks, the spindly pines and macrocarpas in lieu of majestic grey kauri trunks; vivid reds of fly-strike amid the wool; the bony black and white hides of cows cooking in the sun.
I got lost around about 2/3rds in but the final quarter picked me up again and held me until the end. So, in my fine tradition of drawing a line in the sand, this is either a new NZ classic literary tour-de-force, or I’ve totally overblown it. Read it for yourself, and decide.
”Excuse me, but am I missing something here?” came in Reay. “I mean what the heck do these flippin’ squareheads think they are up to? Jerry top brass has formally surrendered, so what’s the deal?”
“Issues, mate, issues,” said Digs authoritatively.