Last standing gets the prize

Everyone has their eye on the prize in this novel by New Zealander Anthony McCarten.

Anthony McCarten
Random House, pbk, $29.99

Review by Gavin McLean

Anthony McCarten has scored a coup most New Zealand writers can only dream of. His latest novel launches alongside the movie version.

Show of Hands is a modern treatment of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The old movie was about endurance dancing during the Depression - last one left standing carried away the prize money.

Show of Hands is set in a London car sales yard, but the rules are similar: the owner of the last hand on an off-road gas guzzler gets the vehicle.

The only breaks allowed are five minutes every two hours, to stretch, queue at an inadequate number of Portaloos or to dash off for takeaways.

Set at the start of today's developing recession (which added a sense of realism), things look oddly similar to the "hungry Thirties".

Although it's a far from universally bleak book, in McCarten's modern London everyone is desperate.

Hatch, the philandering car salesman who cooks up the competition to get into the Guinness Book of World Records to publicise his foundering business, is on a knife's edge financially.

His increasingly disloyal staff, who marshal the contestants, haven't been paid.

And, as the punters discover, the prize is not what it seems.

McCarten starts out with a varied pool of contestants, whom he whittles down.

They include a Hitchcock-style cameo by a New Zealand novelist (who doesn't last long), a rich boy, a flirt, a surprisingly stoic pensioner, a street kid and an emotionally unstable ex-soldier, among others.

The real action is between Tom Shrift and Jess Podorowsky.

McCarten sets them up as apparent polar opposites, a point underlined by Jess having given Tom a parking ticket just a few days before and copping some fairly stiff abuse for it.

Tom is cynical, at war with his neighbour, and his career is on the downward slide.

Jess, the gently spoken solo mother of a handicapped girl, is a parking warden.

Tom wants to sell the car to restart his career.

She needs it to transport her child to a special needs school.

Good/bad, black/white, you might think. Not quite.

As they get to know each other, a softer side to Tom emerges, and we see that Jess is a tougher character than we imagine.

The romantic interest that develops between them is pretty predictable, as is the rounding out of their personalities and the boy-gets-girl resolution.

But as for the true winner of the contest, how he won and the denouement at Hatch's Back-to-Back Cars?

- Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and writer.


Add a Comment