GARY STEEL reads an anthology of short stories by the guy who sang ‘Damn The Dam.’ And it’s damn good.
We keep on hearing about brilliant polymaths and there’s plenty of evidence that creative individuals are often capable of doing more than one thing with their lives. But there’s an innate flaw in human thinking that wants to bag a person in one category alone, and I’ll admit right now that I’m guilty of it.
Personally, I know my limitations and can boast of no skills superfluous to the craft of writing and editing. Even within this limited skill set, however, I’ve been typecast as the guy you get to write about progressive rock, or obscure electronic music, when a look at my record collection would reveal a mass of stylistic confusion.
Although John Hanlon was in the public eye in New Zealand as a singer-songwriter for a mere four years, I confess that’s how I’ve bagged him. I knew that he’d started out as a satirical cartoonist and that he’d gone on to many successful years as a so-called “creative” in the advertising industry in Sydney, because he told me about it all when I interviewed him in 2013. On some level, I didn’t want to know about it, though. I mean, he was our most successful singer-songwriter, with a string of memorable hits including ‘Damn The Damn’ and ‘Lovely Lady’ and even better albeit lesser-known songs.
I know that he writes lively, provocative and thought-provoking prose because I’ve read some of his blog entries, which speak with a clarity and logic that’s rare in a country riven with the idea that you always have to take sides and that the idea is to squawk until you’re heard even though you haven’t actually thought things through.
But still, it came as a surprise to learn that Hanlon had written a whole book of stories. Could it be any good? Not likely. But actually, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. Stealing Smokes is a chunky anthology of bite-sized stories with one much longer piece towards the end. His authorial voice – the clear diction of his singing, the clear thinking of his blogging – comes through loud and clear in this set of exquisite moral fables.
These stories remind me of some of my favourite television of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and The Outer Limits. This might seem preposterous because Stealing Smokes is not a sci-fi or horror tome. Nevertheless, those shows often contained stories with surprising twists and turns and exquisite endings that somehow proved a point about life and the universe, and that’s the similarity. There’s also something in the sometimes grisly twists that inevitably reminds me of Roald Dahl, but the personality behind the prose is entirely different.
With two young children (and their hungry wee mouths to feed) I’m time-poor so Stealing Smokes suited me perfectly, with its economy of words and stories that refused to meander. Writing short stories requires a very specific skill, because you don’t have the time to slowly acquaint the reader with the characters and the scenario until you’re living within the piece. But what I found was that each story felt compelling from the first page to the last, possibly because the reader is never quite sure what’s going to happen or whether they can trust the narrator. You’re forever being led a merry dance, but you want to be.
Stealing Smokes is a book of quirky dramas, each with a point to make about the moral universe and each with some kind of surprise ending, and what makes it especially gratifying is the New Zealand and Australian scenarios and characters that come through it all. We recognise the nasty, power-hungry boss and the school bully who grows up to be a corporate bully, the domestic abuse and the various other societal dysfunctions revealed through these stories. But when I say ‘moral fables’ I don’t mean that they’re heavy-handed because they’re not. These are deft and sprightly and the characters in these stories resonate and the prose is highly readable.
Favourite story? Hard to pick, but I particularly enjoyed what felt like an autobiographical piece about a boy who moves to Singapore in the ‘50s where he experiences post-colonial racism. Hanlon did part of his growing up in Malaya, and this feels like a story that’s particularly close to his heart.