Review of Michael O’Leary’s Unlevel Crossings by David Eggleton

Whenever you hear that lonesome whistle blow, that tootle as a goods train rolls by off in the distance, and reflect for a moment on other journeys, other lives, destinations unknown, choices not made, destinies unfulfilled, and you become maybe melancholy, maybe maudlin, or maybe even unrelievedly happy at your lot, you are in a way entertaining the theme that is the mainspring of the action in Michael O’Leary’s new novel Unlevel Crossings.

Unlevel Crossings is both a journey of self-discovery and a paean for our once-proud, now-rustbelt, railway system. In this novel, the state of a New Zealander is crossed with the state of New Zealand Rail. Unlevel Crossings is an account of both an individual and a society in a state of transit and transition over the past decade or so. In its viewpoint and its methods it is a bicultural novel about fringe-dwellers. It is a book of many voices, but above them all rises the authorial voice. Poet, playwright, publisher, novelist, scribe of the marginalised, Michael O’Leary is a writer above all interested in the possibilities of language in all its variety: sending words into slangy, eccentric orbits is one of the things he does best. Unlevel Crossings is the story of an outsider trying to make sense of the world, struggling to make different realities match up. It is about intersections and exchanges and transport. It is a splendidly droll novel, memorably comic in its unlevel absurdities, its crossover jesting. Which is not to say that it is all easy going. Though there are many incidental pleasures there are also many frustrations and obscurities. These are best skimmed over, to be rewardingly dwelt on by those with the inclination for romans á clef. Stick to the essentially straight-ahead narrative and you will be whisked engagingly along, clickety-click, clackety-clack.

Patrick Mika Fitzgerald is a forty-something factory worker in Auckland who is made redundant, whose mother dies, and who loses his home – all around the same time. He decides to pursue a dream he has had, a vision of a beautiful woman’s face at the window of the Southerner train; she is waving to him. Much given to daydreaming, footloose Fitz heads South – by rail – encountering a rogues’ gallery of characters, some of whom appear and disappear in the turn of a phrase. The texture of the novel weaves straight realism with word associations, streams of consciousness, rivers of fantasy: ‘When they asked (Fitz) questions he answered them in dreams and visions.’

Echoes of the modernist literary canon – quotes and phrases – mingle with the vulgar vernacular, along with echoes of the rock and roll canon, such as snatches of song titles from the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and U2. Unlevel Crossings borrows something of its circular structure and its freewheeling puns from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – a notorious novel, widely shunned by the masses for its obscurantism yet attracting its own loyal following. Early James Joyce, that is the writer of the short stories and of Ulysses, is also an inspiration for much of the powerfully eloquent lyricism, especially mood pieces about the landscape. At other times though, O’Leary is as wilfully garrulous as George Bernard Shaw at his most expansive, bailing us up in thickets of whimsy.

A long middle chapter, ‘Yellban Apocryphal’, which imagines Wellington as phantasmagorical, a kind of Nighttown in the manner of Ulysses, is a tour-de-force of loquacious absurdity, rising to a manic pitch of implausibility. Attending a party at a student flat in deepest Wellington, Fitz encounters a quarrelling, disputatious crew much given to undergraduate humour. There is perhaps something a bit sour about this succession of relentless music hall zanies, these giggling, squiggling cartoons who leap and cavort like tipsy leprechauns for page after page. No wonder Fitz has a nervous breakdown and has to be carted off to hospital. Are these twerpy stooges real, or are they figments of this drug-fuelled innocent’s imagination? The ‘Yellban Apocryphal’ section delivers wild poetry readings, wilder parties, choreographed chaos, ad-libbed craziness. We meet amongst others: Abel Ard (‘absinthe makes the heart grow fonder’), Selcordna (‘he seems to speak a kind of Eastern European Esperanto’) and Viv Bagnolet (‘she’s a hard case, that Viv’). These misfits are lively but you can see their creator’s hands pulling the strings; they are the creatures of his wilful bidding; he is the pasha of their implausibility, the sultan of their caprice. And though he is also the Dickens of their denouements, we remain much more interested in and convinced by Fitz, the gormless hero who is able to grow and develop as a result of his encounters and ordeals, his increasing self-knowledge.

And in a way the novel only really gathers steam after Fitz escapes from Wellington and its distractions. As Fitz travels by ferry across Cook Strait the narrative begins to deepen and gain in significance. Fitz encounters someone able to tell him the truth about his father’s background and help give his life some coherence. Threads begin to draw together. Ultimately the real shape of the novel is a composite: it is part be-bop beatnik, part lyrical travelogue, part joke-fest. Above all, its verbal music reminds you of jazz, as ‘stray horns blow mournfully in mists.’ The southern journey is richly evocative. The author is loath as ever to let an opportunity for a gag slip by – ‘A large sheep with short, thick wool waits to be Sean … it’s the blokes who are nervous round here!’ – but it’s the exhilaration of the trip that really gets your attention, the train ‘bursting out into sunshine and wet, dripping ferns and fronds of the bush above Deborah Bay’, and the arrival in Dunedin: – ‘to him the station seemed a magical place with its beautiful bluestone outer walls and its tiled concourse with the stained glass windows of the Blessed Virgin train…’ The journey south is also a journey into Māoritanga – with the observations on the differences between the main islands Te-Ika-a-Maui and Te Wai Pounamu; the account of the train which is a moving marae; and ultimately Fitz’s meeting with the woman of his dreams, Hinengaro Te Riro i He, who ‘inherits Fitz’s dream reality’ and crosses over into mystical union with his wairua.

Apotheosis is reached in Dunedin and environs as neo-Nazi Wagnerians plot revolution and Fitz saves Hinengaro from their machinations. In league with new-found friend Paul Te Ariki Calvert, Fitz completes a process of self-discovery. Above and beyond the many gigglesome walk-on characters – such as Haki Maroke Kuha (the self-proclaimed New Right Māori Messiah), and Herr Frisch (alias Wilfred von Oven the Nazi war criminal) – what we savour, besides Fitz’s growing awareness, is the author’s poetic celebration of the New Zealand landscape, dark and magnificent: the precise and evocative description of an Otago snowstorm; the succession of days fading away into a series of tranquil nocturnes, their evening calm broken only by the mournful wail of a distant choo-choo train.

(From JAAM 19, May 2003)

Critics’ responses to Michael O’Leary’s novel Unlevel Crossings

‘This gets my vote as the most original New Zealand novel of the year.’
Iain Sharp, Reviewer, Sunday Star Times 18/08/02

‘Michael O’Leary … has a poet’s love of the sounds of words …’
Gavin McLean, reviewer, Otago Daily Times 17/08/02

‘O’Leary can pull out the most heartfelt prose, particularly when describing the natural beauty of this land.’
Michael Larson, reviewer, New Zealand Herald 20/08/02

‘Unlevel Crossings is a Joycean language experience and partly it’s a literary and political satire, but I think it’s also a down-to-earth book about recent changes in New Zealand society.’
Iain Sharp, Sunday Star Times feature article 16/06/02

‘A wonderful pageant…’
‘The book is rich with Mäori poetry, Mäori vocabulary, and not ostentatious…’
‘The book is totally natural … and astonishing textured language …’
‘… a very rewarding book indeed …’
‘… Michael O’Leary is a very distinctive and very singular writer and person in New Zealand …’
‘… it’s a lovely magic exploration on all sorts of levels …’
David Hill, reviewer, Radio New Zealand 31/07/02

‘It is a splendidly droll novel, memorably comic in its unlevel absurdities, its crossover jesting.’
David Eggleton, in JAAM 19, 2003.

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