Emulating Mulgan tall order

Dean Parker's Johnson picks up where Mulgan's classic Kiwi novel, Man Alone, left off. 

Dean Parker
Steele Roberts Aotearoa 


I am ashamed to admit that until Dean Parker’s sequel to Man Alone arrived in my letter-box, I had never read John Mulgan’s classic novel. So before starting Johnson I found  a second-hand copy that I devoured in a single sitting.

In Johnson, Parker picks up the story where Mulgan left off, with the ever-restless hero and his friend O’Reilly headed for Spain to join the fight against Franco’s fascists — not out of any particular conviction but because it was better than the London winter ...  and because he was a Democrat.

The next year is a blur of futile and bloody battles that leave the Republican forces roundly defeated, O’Reilly dead and Johnson back in England just in time for the outbreak of World War 2. Despite the horrors he has just lived through, he promptly signs up and is shuttled from one disastrous theatre of war to another, from Greece to Crete and back again.

And no matter where he goes, he finds New Zealanders, including a former cop who promises to close the murder case against him when he gets home, and a beautiful fellow drifter, Hilary, whose image haunts him and with whom he crosses paths again and again. For the first time in his life, Johnson finds solitude starting to slip into loneliness and at the end of the war he returns to New Zealand hoping to find her.

It is a brave writer who takes on the challenge of stepping into another author’s creation, and there will always be points of criticism.

My first is stylistic. One of the things that particularly struck me about Mulgan’s novel was the spare, Hemingway-esque style: short, deceptively plain and simple sentences that flow effortlessly from one to the next, against which the occasional longer passages which occur during moments of drama  emphasise the events they describe.

Although Parker achieves a similar effect in places, this brevity is seldom sustained and never quite reaches the quality of Mulgan’s prose. Instead the narrative is punctured by long lyrics and long political discursions from characters to which Johnson listens with a polite disinterest that I, by and large, shared.

This contrast is particularly noticeable when Johnson retraces his journey into the Kaimanawa Ranges, where entire paragraphs from Man Alone are reproduced verbatim and struck me again with their beauty.

My second problem was the introduction of Mulgan as a character (Johnson shares a drunken communion with him in a cave high in the Greek hills). I know it is a fallacy to conflate author and narrator and his literal presence here is presumably intended as homage, but it was Mulgan’s voice I heard throughout Man Alone and I felt disappointed to have him summarily removed from the original novel in this manner.

That said, there is much of the story that works. It successfully captures the essence of Johnson’s character and evokes a particular time in history that still resonates today, particularly the descriptions of the war — part tragedy, part farce — which have a touch of the Vonnegut about them.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed revisiting Johnson’s story, and if Parker’s novel of the same name brings Mulgan’s back into public consciousness (and print), all the better for it.

- Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Johnson, by Dean Parker, to give away courtesy of Steele Roberts Aotearoa. For your chance to win one, email books editor shane.gilchrist@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and "Johnson" in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, September 19.

• Winners of last week’s giveaway, Fletcher of the Bounty, by Graeme Lay, courtesy of Harper Collins: Paulette Lister, of Dunedin, Russell Walker, of Dunedin, Lynne Ryder, of Dunedin, Lindsey Thompson, of Timaru, Ken Spall, of Mosgiel.

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