Peter Mathews reviews The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland
The Mary Smokes Boys
by Patick Holland
Transit Lounge, 2010
Reviewed by PETER MATHEWS
Patrick Holland’s second novel The Mary Smokes Boys (Transit Lounge, 2010) has received almost unequivocal praise so far from other reviewers. While Holland does have the potential to become an important writer in the future, it must also be acknowledged that this development is still very much a work in process. One striking feature of this book, as other reviewers have pointed out, is Holland’s intimate knowledge of its geographical setting, which is reflected in his ability to write in poetic detail about the landscape of rural Queensland. This skill derives from the longstanding insight that authors write best about subjects that fall within their range of experience, and Holland, hailing from this part of the country, is able to draw dexterously from his first-hand knowledge of the places he depicts. In employing this strategy, Holland places his work in the recognizable domain of Gothic literature – the blurb on the back of the book compares this novel to Emily Brontë’s nineteenth-century classic Wuthering Heights – a genre that has found an influential new life in contemporary fiction in both American (Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy) and Australian literature, as represented by such established luminaries as Rodney Hall and Tim Winton.
Like other reviewers, I found Holland to be at his best when he is describing the beauty and rawness of the landscape. Particularly admirable are the scenes in which he attempts to convey the desolate nature of his setting, especially its utter indifference to its human occupants. In these passages there is a strange sense of sublime peace that pervades the otherwise anxious protagonist, Grey North:
Grey was alone. He swam upstream and sank into the pool beneath the cradling spotted gum root and rested his arms and let the water crash over him. He laughed to himself at this inconsequential, late-night-creek-swimming small-town life. At such times all thoughts of leaving or anything else belong to that still-distant place called the future left him alone. The world still moved slowly at Mary Smokes Creek. At the creek you took in the infinite and nameless changes in the hours, and moving at the same speed as the earth there was not that whiplash of time and the death feeling that came with hours lost unwittingly in degrees of waking sleep. At Mary Smokes Creek there was time for everything, and no desire to do anything at all. (69)
There is a pristine, existential yearning in these passages that feels both authentic and emotionally moving. Here, Grey swims upstream – symbolizing his broader struggles in life – but in his solitude he finds peace and rest. It is in these moments that the reader catches a passing glimpse of Holland’s greater potential.
Unfortunately, The Mary Smokes Boys does not fully live up to this promise, and its flaws are due, in large part, to the weakness of its characters. The novel is a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman in which we see the development of its protagonist, Grey North, from a young boy who has just lost his mother to a young man trying to cope with the reality of life in a small town. It has become a staple of postmodern fiction to depict characters that are incapable of transcendence, from Bret Easton Ellis’s grotesquely irredeemable Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to the incorrigibly flawed cast of characters that appear in Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. But there is a qualitative difference between these other novels, which satirize the hypocrisy behind the social rhetoric of self-improvement, and the deadly seriousness of Holland’s story, in which Grey repeatedly bemoans the misery of life in Mary Smokes without taking a single genuine step to escape or improve it. For a character imbued by the author with such emotional sensitivity, Grey’s capacity for insight and maturity is strangely limited.
While the inability of Grey to take greater hold of his destiny may be interpreted as a strategic decision on Holland’s part, a deliberate means of exploring the regressive psychology that restricts Grey’s growth into a well-balanced adult, there is no getting around the fact that one of the novel’s most glaring problems is Holland’s failure to invent characters that change and develop in the course of the story. Too often his characters strike a single, uncomplicated note that leaves no room for surprise or reversal. The major characters in the novel are painted in stark, black and white tones, especially Grey’s mother, who is portrayed as a remarkable woman, superbly talented at everything she puts her hand to:
Her father had taught her to speak Irish. She would have amazed her old aunts in that distant country she would never see. She played Bach’s fugues and sang the canticles of Hildegard von Bingen. An Ursuline nun who trained in music at the Brisbane Conservatorium had taught her. Sister Marie Hauswald said no one in Mary Smokes knew how well the girl’s voice carried the great prayers. (25)
The problem with this portrayal is not that she is a good woman, but the way in which Holland overplays these good qualities – Irene North not only learns Irish, but is fluent enough to amaze her Irish relatives were she ever to meet them; she is not only musically gifted, she is the greatest singer in Mary Smokes; her compassion, knowing no bounds, extends to caring selflessly for “Ook” Eccleston, the troubled offspring of an affair between the North’s former neighbor and an indigenous woman; she displays her unrelenting devotion to her children, which culminates in her death while giving birth to her daughter, who is also named Irene in her memory. Simply put, Grey’s mother is depicted as being so saintly that she is not believable as a real human being. This impression is reinforced by her husband, Bill North, Grey’s father, a worthless alcoholic who, in a mirror image of his wife’s fine qualities, fails to possess a single redeeming feature. The novel desperately needs a point of contrast to the predictability of its characters, and it is Grey’s failure to step into this role, even when his instincts tell him that effective action needs to be taken, that made his behavior throughout the novel seem childish and unsympathetic to me.
Such one-dimensional characters also hamstring the plot of The Mary Smokes Boys, which moves from one minor crisis to the next in an episodic manner. Because of the novel’s lack of character development, Holland has to rely primarily on external events to drive the narrative forward. Thus, the novel opens with the death of Grey’s mother while giving birth to his sister, Irene, then meanders through Grey’s wayward youth, the foolish gambling of Bill North that lands the family into trouble, and the fleecing of Grey’s nemesis August Tanner, bringing the narrative through a full circle of revenge and heartbreak. There is nothing organic about the story’s construction, and it is because of this artificiality that the reader is left with no real deep sense of tragedy, only pathos.
For all these shortcomings, there is undoubtedly a germ of potential in Holland’s writing, but for it to flower it must be tempered by an emotional restraint that mirrors the economy of his prose. While there is certainly room for a Hardy-esque reexamination of life in rural Australia in contemporary literature, the tone of disavowed sentimentality that characterizes so much of this story left me feeling cold and disconnected from the characters. What the novel sorely needed was a larger moment, if not of transcendence, then at least of genuine self-awareness on the part of its protagonist that he is trapped in a pattern of psychic regression, a note of contrast to the relentless nihilism that surrounds him on all sides. Without that moment, all the novel’s impressively lyrical passages about the universe’s sublime purposelessness, rather than providing a profound meditation on the brevity of human life, ring somewhat hollow.
PETER MATHEWS is an Assistant Professor of English at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea.