North & South autumn 2020 (well it would have been autumn, except the publisher canned the magazine…)
Reviewed by Paul Little
In four previous volumes of stories Botur has claimed for himself a piece of literary territory occupied by the desperate, downtrodden and damned. He tells his tales in what would have been called an “amphetamine-fuelled” prose style until all suggestion of acquaintance with amphetamines became socially unacceptable. Let’s go for “breakneck” and “febrile” to describe the prose and accept that much of his characters’ behaviour remains socially unacceptable.
The title refers to one side of life in Christchurch, examined here through a cast of character who include Marty, a 17-year-old South African immigrant from the right side of the tracks drawn to the wrong side, along with his girlfriend, brother and associates of varying levels of psychopathy, including Jade, whose appetite for violence is prodigious.
The pages are strewn with episodes of graphic violence. What your reviewer knows about violence at first hand could be tattooed on the knuckles of one fist, but these scenes wring gut-wrenchingly true. It’s not so much a slice of life as a life of slicing.
Everyone is in some sort of mess from which they can’t extricate themselves, no matter their station or ambition. Ultimately the book is about cycles: of debt, of violence, of incarceration, of family dysfunction. The hidden connections between the characters, when revealed, reinforce this fatalist theme, although the conclusion does not necessarily do the same.
There’s humour too, including plenty of word play and some vicious farce, such as the scene in which the gang world crashes into the world of school mouth expos and country shows or that in which Afrikaans and street slang butt heads at a family dinner.
Don’t worry that you’ll miss the point – Alan Duff is here to explain it for you in an incongruous upfront Q&A with the writer. It no doubt adds some authorial collegiality to the enterprise. but the book doesn’t need it.
Crimechurch: How to buy the book
Amazon.com print on demand paperback –
Kindle mobi to read Crimechurch by Michael Botur on your Kindle Fire
Kindle mobi – please use the contact form to purchase your epub
Crimechurch: Q&A Foreword with Alan Duff
THE HOUSE OF ANGRY BELONGING:
TALKING VIOLENT MEN WITH ALAN DUFF
It’s been 30 years since Alan Duff published the book Once Were Warriors and 25 years since the film version broke New Zealand box office records.
We’ve hit 2020 and we still have a country with domestic violence, street violence and terrorism.
Duffy and Botur talk it over.
BOTUR: Crimechurch is about four principal male characters, each more violently competitive than the last. They all subscribe to a code whereby it’s acceptable to dish out beatings and bombs and bottlings because they believe other people are threatening them. I call this the Male Code. What other features do you think there are in the Male Code?
DUFF: In Once Were Warriors I call it the House of Angry Belonging. I have the initiation ceremony for one of Jake’s sons and the gang leader screaming in the kid’s face ‘This is your family!’ He just wants to go to Grace’s funeral and here’s this big oaf screaming in his face. So violent groups are a family unit for loveless people. It’s more than honouring some code.
Once Were Warriors had depictions of competitive male culture from the late 1980s. Crimechurch has competitive male culture from the 2000s. Do you think male codes have changed over the last 30 years? Will men ever stop trying to violently outdo one another?
Male codes have never changed. It’s got nothing to do with men trying to outdo each other. It’s about men growing up with no love. It’s not lost values. Why do you think kids from middle class families don’t go and join a gang? 1) They don’t need to and 2) They’ve been brought up being told they are individuals and there is a beautiful life for them.
Your book One Night Out Stealing has a scene where the Pākehā protagonist Jube is beaten up by a white gang for associating with Sonny, who is Māori. When it comes to the code of violent male honour, do you think there is any difference between Māori and Pākehā conceptions of what’s acceptable?
No. It’s not an ethnic thing. It’s the outlook. The white gang members don’t like the brown, but the brown ones also don’t like their fellow gang members. I had Jube beaten up to show his stupid misread of situations. He just doesn’t get it. I had him beaten up because like all criminals who can’t be told they’re all as idiotic as each other. I don’t think you should call it code of honour – it’s a code of dishonour. Anything that is dishonourable, they think it’s so cool. I’ve been locked up with them so I know this from a firsthand experience, since I was a 13 year old. I know how they think.
Do you think people wanting to be dishonourable will ever change?
Nothing changes unless there’s a will to change it. Oafs and fools and buffoons are doing nothing to change it. There’s a bit of tokenism but their code is still violence and disrespect to women and ignoring or abusing women. They worship at the altar of violence: they think violence is fucking cool. But so did Jake Heke when I wrote it way back in 1990. I had Jake say “I just woke up and I want to fucking punch someone.”
Once Were Warriors was so influential on me. I remember trying to emulate or copy it back in 2004. When I read that book it left a big impression.
We all do that. We all copy the people that really impress us as writers until you find your own style. I think you’ve found your own style and that’s why I’m talking to you. I haven’t endorsed a single other writer in 29 years.
Struth… Alan, have you had violence in your past and if so, what caused you to stop taking part in violent situations?
It’s called looking in the mirror and listening to wiser heads and realising what an awful hideous ugly thing it is.
Yeah, I had anger management in 2013 and 2016. A good hard look in the mirror from someone who confronted me helped point me in the right way.
You can’t just have someone pointing the finger – it’s got to be someone you respect and listen to.
What’s the most regrettable thing you’ve ever done to prove your manhood?
I don’t regret anything. What’s the use of regretting when you can’t change it? You can only change what you become.
Do you think we will have less violence in the future? If so, why?
I think we’ll have less as society becomes more socially conscious, socially aware. I mean, if Scandinavia can be less violent than their Viking ancestors, then NZ can be less violent as well. But I don’t think America will ever be less violent. When you hand out a gun you’ve just given a midget, a little nobody who’s never achieved anything in his life, he can go up to an athlete or a billionaire and shoot him stone dead. You’ve just given him power. He’s not going to relinquish that.
Do you feel we need to stop real life Jake the Musses and Jubes and Jimmy Bad Horses? If so, what’s the solution?
No, you can’t stop them because you can’t stop the backgrounds they come from. Well, the way you lessen their numbers is you change the background they come from and therefore the thinking. You’ve got to change the culture that venerates or condones violence. You’ve got to change it so they think the only way ahead is to be educated, to love and make sacrifices for your children and think beyond your own selfish hedonistic needs. That’s how you stop them. Right now if you let it go on, you’ve got zero chance. They’re still out there. They’re in countries all over the world, not only in New Zealand.
Are men born instinctively knowing violent solutions to problems, or is it learned behaviour?
I think we’re born instinctively violent. I watch kids and I see kids lash out from a very young age. When they want something, when they
want the bit of cake some other kid has got they’re gonna get it come hell or high water. They’ll snatch it, they’ll hide it. It’s human nature.
Is New Zealand a particularly violent place?
It’s more violent than what we admit – way more violent than France or Germany or anywhere I’ve been to in Europe. The Germans had those periods of WW1 and WW2 where they were epically violent, their nations went mad, particularly in WW2. Now they’re seemingly passive, pacifist people… but I’ve got a more cynical view of human nature. I’ve talked at length to countless people who have been on the wrong side of the law. I know so many are just aching to change but they don’t know how and they don’t know where to start. They’ve confided in me hundreds of times since Warriors came out, they all say the same thing: “My old man was worse than Jake and I grew up so fucked up. I’m a bit like Jake myself but I don’t know how to change or where to start.”
What can solve crime and antisocial behaviour?
I think there’s a group of professional people paid to send out bad news because it’s in their monetary interest to say ‘The reason all these people are raping and murdering is because of poverty.’
I said to a school group of almost totally Polynesian school children the other day, ‘Don’t believe in this nonsense about poverty. Go knock on the door of your local Indian dairy owner or shop, ask them if you can sweep or clean the shop.’ You get all these negative messages from professional soothsayers. One Māori leader after another says it. Yes I know land theft took place on a massive scale. There’s no question about that, but Jesus Christ: stop telling us we’re poor and that’s why we’re behaving like this. How come the poor Vietnamese and the poor Chinese and Indians and Pakistanis that come here– they’ve come from $2, $5 a day cultures and they come over here and think ‘Our family unit, we’re going to set up a shop and I’m going to work my way out of it.’ There are too many negative messages.
Crimechurch: Why Kids From Humble Homes Demand Danger
by Michael Botur
Life in the safe suburbs of Christchurch isn’t dangerous enough for Marty. He needs excitement in punk, protest, politics and pipes.
Marty soon finds Mona, a teenage prostitute living in a flophouse of skinheads and goths. The two descend underground and live for drugs and dodgy deals.
Still, Marty and Mona are minnows. Out to eat them are psychopathic brother and sister Jade and Shayna.
Meanwhile, war has broken out amongst the bikers Marty and Mona depend on for dope. Fuelling the fight is ‘King Kong’ Chong, a thug determined to be Number One in the 03.
Swimming between the sharks is Winston, Marty’s baby brother. He may be a shrimp, but Winston has a plan to get himself a big reputation.
Being Bad Feels Fun
Crimechurch is narrated by characters whose lives offered them plenty of chances to stop causing trouble, but they chose to be bad anyway. Why? Cause it feels fun.
I trashed my hometown when I was younger through vandalism, sloppy drunken petty crime and fighting. Crimechurch makes art from the baggage I picked up back around 2002 when I was trying to barge my way into manhood.
I write inspired by a mixture of guilt over the wastefulness and pride in the risks I took. All that risk-taking was like exercise for Mikey’s mischievous side, though it was years before my sensitive, caring side was developed.
Back in the day, I saw some scary shit. My immediate friends didn’t get stabbed, shot, patched or imprisoned, but I was one degree away from people who did. Instead of running away or aspiring to live more responsibly, I saw the dating, drinking, drugs and drama and thought: Safety is boring. Let’s have some fun.
Sifting Through The Wreckage
Some memorable mayhem from the boyz in my hood:
+ Squirrel at my high school brought a baseball bat to smash a younger kid who’d bashed him and nearly started a race war
+Big Tony snapped a cue over his leg at a pool hall on Colombo Street when he needed an impromptu weapon for a rumble
+ One mate’s older bully brother – who taught us all how to fight – had a punchup in the Avon River with two guys (more than once)
+Trebe got into a 20 minute headlock with another guy in a Cashel Mall clash
+Goblin got punched through the driver side window of his Chrysler on Colombo Street, leaving him bloodied and covered in glass
+ Mr T smashed a redneck kid’s letterbox with a baseball bat, so the redneck kid’s older brother gave Mr T a hiding in the locker room
+Buck, age 15, had his face kicked in by a 13 year old gangsta
+ G. attacked his girlfriend’s dad, had regular punch-ups with the younger goons who hung out with him, got stomped by army boys out clubbing… email me if you want more anecdotes about this guy
The Code Of Honour
Young men love violence. Our code says that if somebody insults you, you should seek rough restitution. Your peers will admire you for it. Your ex-girlfriend has a new lover? Txt ’em some threats and set up a brawl. An insult comes your way from a passing car on Manchester Street? Bash ’em with a Jim Beam bottle at the traffic lights. Baycorp’s on your case cause you owe thousands of dollars? Why not run up some more debt to really get your money’s worth.
As Crimechurch argues, all the smashing and bashing can be easily walked away from – but where’s the fun in that? Sure any one of us could take up a quiet job and a quiet life in a quiet house with no debts, threats or regrets – but the cost is missing out on opportunities to explore your inner animal with some truly wild behaviour.
Plenty of people went all the way in terms of risk-taking. A number of peers from my community aren’t here to tell their tale. I can tell you about the aspiring athlete who hung himself; the handsome, witty man who chose to do home invasions and underworld debt collecting; the junkie skinheads whipping people with chains; the boys right now putting primer patches on for a smooth entry into the brotherhood of bikers.
White people problems?
One of the stereotypes of Christchurch is that it’s full of bothersome white people. But I didn’t get into trouble in Christchurch because I’m white. I got into trouble simply because I have a curious, mischievous and creative streak. I used my brains to think up naughtiness. For most people though, being short on money, hope and good influences is the main reason for getting into trouble. The city is post-industrial; career and comfort aren’t as assured as they once were. Where working class railways, warehouses, mining, shipping and farming collide with orchestras, art, tech and literature, that’s where people start shit. Crimechurch has it all – and earthquakes, too, of course.
The novel is a brief reunion between a promiscuous, lazy, impulsive, naive and immature 18 year old and the 34-year old man I’ve become – family-focused, creative, energetic and cultured.
The novel promises to be regretful yet unapologetic, raw and tender. Within the gritty lifestyles of my conflicted characters we’ll experience passion and pride, love and lament, guilt and guile.
I follow in the path of authors I admire who have a history of troublemaking. Will Self did dope on the prime minister’s plane. Alan Duff went to jail for running with a fraud gang. Irvine Welsh first got in trouble with the cops at age eight. Luke Davies spent the entire 80s as “a horrible and untrustworthy person full of hatred and resentment to the world because the world got in the way of me getting drugs.”
All these authors would agree: make art from dirt and you’re on the road to redemption.
It might sound like Crimechurch is me criticising the city. It’s nothing of the sort. I had a rich childhood in a city I’m still proud to call home. The novel is simply me looking back half a life later and saying ‘Holy shit – that was a close one.’