Ockham Shortlist 2020: Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall
Below is an excerpt from the novel Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall, which is shortlisted for this year’s Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the writer:
Owen Marshall described by Vincent O’Sullivan as ‘New Zealand’s best prose writer’, is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, poet and anthologist, who has written or edited 30 books, including the bestselling novel The Larnachs. Numerous awards for his fiction include the New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship in Letters, fellowships at Otago and Canterbury universities, and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in Menton, France. In 2000 he became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to literature; in 2012 was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) and in 2013 received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. In 2000 his novel Harlequin Rex won the Montana New Zealand Book Awards Deutz Medal for Fiction. Many of his other books have been shortlisted for major awards, and his work has been extensively anthologised.
About the book:
Comeuppance comes from unexpected directions.
This entertaining and insightful novel both skewers and celebrates small-town New Zealand.
Pat `Pearly’ Gates has achieved a lot in his life and evinces considerable satisfaction in his achievements. He has a reputation as a former Otago rugby player and believes he would have been an All Black but for sporting injuries. He runs a successful real-estate agency in a provincial South Island town, of which he is the second-term mayor. Popular, happily married, well established, he cuts an impressive figure, especially in his own eyes.
But will his pride and complacency come before a fall?
Extract from Pearly Gates
‘You have to let him be different,’ said Helen.
He didn’t see Snoz any more. Snoz hadn’t done well at varsity at anything except rugby and the formation of friendships. He’d afterwards had various clerical and sales jobs, none of which led to significant advancement. In his fifties he’d decided he wanted to be a real estate agent like Pearly, and they corresponded regularly for a few months while Snoz, with Pearly’s assistance, attempted to pass the necessary online course to gain registration. That plan fizzled out for reasons Snoz never made clear, and he ended up running a five-unit motel in Dargaville. Pearly and Helen visited him there once, but she and Snoz’s wife didn’t click, and so the couples never made the considerable effort needed to meet again. Maintaining friendships becomes more complicated when you’re married. And Pearly had felt oddly alienated by Northland rather than intrigued by the contrast with his own country. Mangrove swamps, for God’s sake, wet heat and the sense of the bush massing to take over the cleared land once again. Even the rivers were different, with brooding, muddy beds rather than dry, grey shingle spreads. Pearly felt oppressed and contained in Northland. He missed the openness, the sparseness, the mountains and plains contrast of the South Island.
……..But Snoz and Pearly went back a long way, and Pearly had hoped to see him at the high-school celebrations, was disappointed and saddened to learn he wasn’t well and so unable to come. Snoz sent a donation of $100 and requested a photograph of his decade group.
……..‘Poor old Snoz,’ said Pearly as he took the lawnmower from the garage, and then, ‘What a bugger,’ in endorsement of his own comment as he checked the petrol while still thinking of his friend. He admired the rotary mower as he topped it up. It was a premier model with mulching facility and a 175cc Briggs & Stratton engine. He would ring, he decided as he wiped a little spill from the glossy red finish. He would demonstrate to Snoz that he’d been missed, that he’d been conjured in the conversation of his classmates, although not present in the flesh, that in the stories they exaggerated on revisitation he’d always have his role. Pearly stood for a moment on the lawn before starting the mower, the sun warm on the back of his shirt as he looked over his property. He was still, with a slight smile that wasn’t anything to do with what surrounded him, but a tribute to escapades with Snoz a long time ago. Yes, he’d ring. As soon as he’d finished the lawn he would go in and make the call.
……..Snoz’s wife answered when later he did so, but Pearly had asked Helen for her name in anticipation of that and so was unflustered. ‘Hello, Gay, it’s Pat Gates here. Pearly,’ he said.
……..‘Who?’ The inflection rose to the level almost of exasperation.
……..‘Pearly Gates. I’m ringing to see how Snoz is and have a chat about the school reunion. We missed him and were sorry to hear he’s been crook.’
……..‘He’s lying down. That’s mostly what he does now.’
……..‘That’s okay, then. Just tell him that—’
……..‘I’ll take the phone through,’ she interrupted in a tone that held no active dislike, just indifference. Pearly could hear her breathing as she walked and imagined the house through which she moved. A home much the same as the five units to which it was joined, just an extra bedroom and a garage to make it the big brother. Sliding aluminium doors, particle board, seascape prints, grey carpet, seepage stains along the shower base. And it would be as hot as Gay’s heavy exhalation suggested: the nearby estuarine creek dark and turgid, crab holes gaping in the mud. ‘It’s your South Island mate,’ he heard her say, and following the indistinct reply, ‘You know, the Pearly chap who came years ago. You played sport together.’
……..‘Pearly?’ The voice was subdued and uncertain. ‘That you, Pearly?’
……..‘Sure is. I just thought I’d ring to see how you are and let you know how the 125th went.’
……..‘Yeah, I wanted to go. I was looking forward to it, but I’m just not up to any travel at the moment. It’s a real bummer. I really wanted to go.’
……..Pearly went quickly through the highlights, and the low concerning Gumbo’s accident, and Snoz professed interest, amusement and commiseration at appropriate times, but there was an underlying weariness and detachment in his voice. All he had to offer from his own life was that he was trying to sell the motel and wasn’t having much luck. ‘You should come and do it for me,’ he said. ‘You’ve got the knack. We’re sick of being tied to the place. Sick of cleaning up after other people.’
……..As Pearly was giving him a description of the formal dinner, Snoz broke in suddenly. ‘I don’t suppose you know who’s on our old place now?’
……..‘I do, as it happens,’ said Pearly. ‘Folk called McIndoe. I think they came from Marlborough. Richie says they’re okay people.’
……..‘They’ve built a new house on it.’
……..‘Uh-huh,’ said Snoz. He wasn’t interested in the new people, just in the farm as he’d known it, and Pearly couldn’t transport him there. He was stranded in the present and in Northland, separated from health and the elusive past.
……..‘Gumbo and I were remembering when we all sneaked into the girls’ hostel, and you came a hell of a cropper as we were running off.’
……..‘Nearly killed myself,’ grumbled Snoz proudly. ‘We were all mad bastards then.’
……..‘We were. Mad bastards, weren’t we.’
. ..Pearly visited other mythologised exploits from their friendship, but the conversation didn’t offer the full pleasure he’d expected. It wasn’t really Snoz he talked to. Not his Snoz of youthful companionship. Snoz was gone: even as he lay breathing heavily on a mid-afternoon bed in the Northland heat, he was gone — the whip-cool, laughing and audacious Snoz of time past — and Pearly grieved for him.
© Owen Marshall, 2019, published in Pearly Gates, Penguin Random House.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell