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Little masters / Damien Wilkins.

By: Wilkins, Damien, 1963-.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: Wellington [N.Z.] : Victoria University Press, 1996Description: 414 pages ; 22 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 0864732988 (pbk.) :.Genre/Form: New Zealand fiction -- 20th century. | New Zealand fiction.DDC classification:
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

A novel. It tells the story of young New Zealanders abroad. Adrian lives in a London squat with his son. Emily is nanny to a Midwest doctor's daughter. The story moves from Wellington to meadows in England. Damien Wilkins won the New Zealand Book Award for fiction with his novel 'The Miserables' in 1994. He has also published short stories and poems.

A novel.

11 22 37 89 96

Excerpt provided by Syndetics

Chapter One On the way to the airport the child was quietly, dryly sick into his father's handkerchief. He coughed politely, as if to clear a tickle. Here, according to Adrian's mother, the child's grandmother, was a complete miniature gentleman, who, in the courtroom, with his little suit and tie, looked like a small lawyer. "A professional person is what he seems to me," she said. "I had none of these professionals. I had childish children and I still do." Adrian's father said the boy had the manners of a servant. Invisible as a butler. English. Adrian's parents are confused by Daniel, the profile that has its perfect match in early photos of their son, yet is colored wrongly, as if the photo has faded--too pale, so that when he flushes his skin hums pink as the piping on a cake. They have never before been uncertain about any child. They have always known and announced calmly that this child is good, this one not so good. This one an angel, this one a trial. Anyone who was brought home. Anyone who visited or stayed overnight or came for lunch and forgot grace and reached across. Everyone has sat on these scales and been weighed for their worth. A blessing, a horror. The rod you make for yourself. The reward you sow from seed. Daniel, newly the son of their son, has remained in doubt. The suddenness of his arrival and the murkiness of his origins have cut down their clues. For the two months they have all lived together, he has moved--wafted even, because he has often seemed less than solid--between their categories. The child coughed some more, but there was nothing left. Instead, a smell like aniseed filled the car and mixed into it a rubbery staleness, as if a hot-water bottle had just been opened. Daniel had spent that morning, which was to have been final packing time, stammering into the bowl. Adrian stroked the boy's back and monitored what came up. There was the occasional alarm, especially in that long moment it took him to identify, among the bright party food, the little pink skins of saveloys. Mostly, however, Adrian felt calm; not cheerful but somehow satisfied with the situation. Holding Daniel as he was being ill, he thought of himself as suddenly, curiously adept at all this. It was happening for the first time, yet he was an old hand. The way the rib cage leaped beneath his fingertips--the singularity of each rib! The knobs of bone making the spine transparent behind the stretched skin, causing him to think, despite himself, despite the suffering he was watching, of the jolliness of xylophones. Guiltily, a second and connected image came to him as he watched his son's back and touched his fingers to it--that of the polished blocks of glockenspiels donging out awful, woody little tunes in a school orchestra. Adrian, too, is confused by Daniel and his ability to render any gesture made toward him ambivalent, any thought uncharitable, any action half-done. The first weekend he had him home, Adrian took Daniel to the Trade Fair. They wandered around the Exhibits Hall watching each other. Shyly they touched the tires of new tractors and looked on as a Scout party was raised and lowered in the giant scoop of a bulldozer. At one stand a man was demonstrating a new vacuum cleaner. "Here, son," the man said to Daniel, "throw this cup of coffee on the carpet there. Go on, just throw it. I don't care." Daniel held the cup he'd been given, looked into it, checked the carpet. "Toss it!" said the man. "Go on--I want to show you something. I want to show you something about trust. Trust in something that does what it says it's supposed to do. Something old-fashioned and plain like that. Biff it." Daniel looked at the man, then at Adrian. It wasn't permission he seemed to be asking for, it was more like corroboration, witness. Or was it an accusation? Was the child, suddenly under this unsought spotlight, saying Why me? Adrian tried an encouraging grin. The vacuum man was revving the engine on his cleaner, working the start button with his foot. He aimed the nozzle in the air. A small crowd had bottlenecked. "Ladies and gentlemen, this young person has a cup of rich, dark coffee. Coffee like tar. Ever tried to lift coffee stains off a cream carpet. I mean really lift them, so you don't end up with that telltale shadow, that coffee scent, which every dog and cat in the house licks for breakfast? Months later the pets are still lining up like it was a saucer? Watch this space." The man gestured to Daniel. "We're ready this end--give it a heave. Empty that sucker all over here. Trust me." But Daniel didn't move. He held the crowd, cradling his undelivered bomb, peering into it once more. Then he was bringing the cup to his lips. "Hey!" said the man. "Hey, you." Daniel was going to drink the vacuum man's coffee. People started to laugh. And then Adrian was reaching for the cup to take it away. It was a prop, after all. Who knew what this stuff really was, how many towns it had been through. Maybe it had been hoovered up, then decanted back into the cup, show after show. The cup fell. They jumped back as it hit the ground. "Finally," said the vacuum man, moving in, the engine pumping. "We don't care how it gets there, folks, as long as it gets there. A genuine accident. We love realism." . . . Adrian is confused, not by the child as a moral weight, nor by the signals of what lies ahead, though all that seems difficult enough. He is lost by a glance he might catch, a soundless motion of the brow, a particular way of walking different from yesterday's. It is not the future he wants to predict, it is the present. It is each unthinkable moment between them, the meaning of an hour's worth of gestures, the almost unmanageable accumulation of a day's worth of the everyday. After the cup episode they walked quickly around the hall, past the shiny enameled machinery, feeling conspicuous, targeted--almost running to escape the John Deere man, who laid a hand on Daniel's shoulder to coax him up onto his thresher--until they made it into the night and the amusement area. "Now," said Adrian, breathing in the burned smell of overworked oils, tested hydraulics, "what do you want to do? Do you want to shoot ducks or throw softballs? Now's the good part." "No," said Daniel. He was straining to see something. Adrian asked him what it was. "The Gravitron," said Daniel. Adrian crumpled. "I'm not very good at rides," he said. "It's just a thing that spins," said Daniel, starting to move off. "Well, are you sure you're old enough for it? You might be too little, mightn't you?" "The littler the better." The boy was already disappearing ahead of him. Adrian was the oldest person inside the Gravitron by a decade. The attendant checking everyone's harness was about fourteen. "No objects are to be thrown while the Gravitron is in operation," the fourteen-year-old mumbled. "If you have any loose objects on your person they must be handed in now or secured about your person by means of, say, a pocket or something. Put everything in your pockets. You got to remain in your harness while the Gravitron is in motion, okay. Especially you two little shits." He pointed his cigarette at a couple of kids, who giggled. Ash fell onto the floor. Adrian wondered whether ash constituted a loose object and was about to say something when the attendant stepped out of the Gravitron and slammed the hatch. In the greeny, submarine darkness Adrian could hear the sounds of harnesses being loosened. Buckled clicked against the metal walls, straps were falling away. Beside him he felt Daniel moving to free himself. "Daniel!" he whispered. "What are you doing? You're not untying it, are you?" But now the machine was beginning to rotate. The lights inside flickered on and off as the Gravitron picked up speed. There was a whooping, a scream. A girl's face appeared briefly, her long hair pressed out in a black rosette around her. A pair of legs swung past his nose. They were quickening with a rush. Adrian tried to move his arm, but the force was already too great; he was pinned to the wall, the skin of his cheeks tightening. He couldn't close his eyes--the lids didn't fit. He should have taken his contact lenses out. Beside his head an empty sneaker stood on the wall. There was no longer any human noise inside the Gravitron, the spinning had strangled all cries. What he saw in the flashes were the stretched forms of children plastered to the roof, hanging upside down, flattened sideways, glued on uncanny diagonals. The children's bodies layered the spaces above him like painted putti. He wondered where Daniel had stuck. He wondered whether Anna, the boy's mother, had ever allowed herself to be shackled in this way, pressed thin as a tile in this human mosaic. Then the Gravitron began to slow. The children began to drop, falling through the air in front of him with the slow motion of spiders. They tumbled into the spinning center, then crawled back to their original places. By the final few turns, everyone was harnessed again. The latch opened and the fourteen-year-old stepped inside. "Whoever lost this," he said, stamping on the sneaker and holding it there under his foot, "you're banned, okay." A boy of about the same age, though taller than the attendant, unbuckled himself and came forward. He pushed the attendant so he fell over, then he picked up the sneaker. "I'll call security, Hurley," said the attendant. "You damaged my property," the other boy said, turning to leave with his friends. "Don't ever do that, Knox." "Assault," said Knox weakly. "We pissed in your Gravitron as well," said Hurley. "We were fucking hanging from the rafters." "What do I care?" said Knox after they'd gone. He looked tearfully at Adrian, who was wobbling past, feeling sick. "Did you see those wankers?" he said. "Yes," said Adrian. He didn't particularly know what to say to this boy. He didn't like him. He was too young for the job. He'd fallen down too easily. He was crushingly friendless. "I'm sorry," he added, pushing past. Outside the Gravitron more stars seemed to have come out; they spun and shot, welding the lights of the Dipper together in a fizzy arc. People continued to circle oddly. Daniel rippled in front of him. Adrian sat down on the grass. "What are you doing?" said Daniel "I'm sitting down," said Adrian. "I'm going back inside," said Daniel. "I want to have my portrait done while my hair's like this." When Adrian recovered, he found Daniel inside riding the thresher. The John Deere man showed Adrian the charcoal portrait. "It catches something about him," he said to Adrian. "I've been here all week and this is the first one that doesn't look like someone famous. The guy learned his trade by tracing James Dean and Marilyn onto T-shirts. Everyone looks like they come from the fifties." Adrian looked at the charcoal drawing. Daniel was there somewhere, but in the smudges and sharp lines he'd grown older. "You owe the guy over there eight-fifty," the John Deere man said. "It was going to be ten, but he gave the kid a discount because he couldn't get the eyes right." Adrian looked at the eyes--they were too narrow. They were shifty, cunning even--had the artist also taken a stab at the child's inner self? "The eyes are weak," said the John Deere man. "Asian, sort of. But the mouth is very good, I think. Pouty." He slapped the side of the thresher. "Do you know much about these beauties?" The child had been so impregnable at the Trade Fair, so sure and quick, and even when he seemed less capable--as in those moments at the vacuum stand with the coffee cup--his hesitation was uninviting, his uncertainty beyond coaching. At times Adrian felt himself to be nothing more than a chaperon, the driver. But then, just occasionally, Daniel would appear to turn to him in the deepest, most rushed need. Holding him in his parents' bathroom on the morning after the party, Adrian finally had time. So he had tapped lightly on that exposed back, in comfort but also just to see, to hear. It was hollow, lovely. The weird playfulness he felt was not the only novelty, the moment also seemed extraordinarily free of duty. What had pinched Adrian into action was surely something natural, instinctive, and even--here he paused, almost believing it--fatherly. There they were--the son, sort of helpless, in the father's arms, as if they'd practiced it. As if their shared history had been instantly cured of wariness and effort, the false delicacy--what Adrian's father called the pussyfooting. Only last week Adrian had gone to comb Daniel's hair and seen him flinch as if he was about to be hit. In the car Daniel spat and looked sheepishly at his father. "I've finished," he said. And he was--his cheeks inflated, tears forcing his eyes closed, he would sleep through the next twenty-four hours, waking up in a place where the other children would crucify him for his accent and speak a mysterious vocabulary of footballers, funny street names, and strange lollies. Adrian couldn't blame him for having been suddenly drawn, on his last night, to the smell of sweetened rum. Adrian passed the handkerchief forward to his mother, who put it in a plastic bag in the glovebox. "I'll wash it and send it over in a letter," she said. "You think a hankie will fit in an aerogram? Maybe an envelope. I'll send it. Ironed flat it will fit, I think." She looked over into the backseat. "The poor thing." Adrian's father, who against the doctor's advice was driving--Since when does having a bit of flu on the left lung affect a person's ability to hold a wheel and move his feet a little?--wound down the window for some air. "What poor thing?" he said. "The boy has two glasses of the punch--he's dancing on the tables, singing, he's making merry. Eight and a half years old. I've never seen a human being so happy. His first hangover! In the morning we pay for our sins." "Don't talk about sins, Stanni." She lowered her voice. "Sins are serious. I took him to Father Daley. He has had Father Daley's hand on his head. It is not a sin to be happy one time in your life." Adrian leaned forward between the front seats. "You took him to Father Daley?" he said. "When did this happen?" "He gave him a tiny St. Christopher's medal," she said, "and I didn't have the heart to tell Father that St. Christopher has been, not defrocked, but at least some doubt, some serious doubt has been cast on his existence and powers and all this travel business. He has been puffed up for commercial gain, St. Christopher, and now he's coming down. Poor Father Daley, his palsy is so terrible he can't turn the pages of the newsletter. He still says art, art in Heaven." "I don't believe you took him without even telling me," said Adrian. "I say art," said his father. "Anyone can say is, is in Heaven." "You didn't make him go to confession, did you?" said Adrian. "Confession?" his father said. "This boy? What does he know about kneeling in the dark and being absolved for a little penance anyway? Nothing. How could he know? His mother was not of the faith. His father won't allow it." "Mama?" said Adrian. "They talked," she said, without turning around. When Stan was driving, everyone had to look. They were approaching a roundabout without slowing down. His father pushed on: "The boy has no experience, no instruction." "Exactly," said Adrian. "Which is why it would terrify--" "Roundabout," his mother said to the windshield, cutting Adrian off. Once they were through safely, he continued: "Which is why it would terrify him to be shut inside that dark box with a man you can't see, blowing his breath at you and asking you for your secrets." "Secrets?" said his father. "As if it was a playground and children swapping tales." "Please!" said his mother. She might have reached out her hand and put it on her husband's arm, as she often did, but not now. They had to change lanes soon. "Not in front of the boy, who is not an idiot or hard-of-hearing." "Thank you," said Adrian. "You need to be in the other lane, Stan," she said. "But you can't go now." "I know, I know," he said. "When can I go?" Adrian checked behind them. "Go now if you're quick." "I don't want to be quick, I want to change lanes." "You've missed it," said Adrian. His father put his head out the window and the car lost nearly all its speed. Behind them brakes were being applied. Adrian could see the people rocking forward in their seats. Finally his father edged them across. "Of course, we will say these famous goodbyes," said his mother. "And it will be painful. And in ten minutes, Adrian, you will have forgotten us. Bang--we're gone. That's what will happen." "Oh, Mama," said Adrian. She'd taken Adrian's side; now she wanted to punish him slightly for it. "After they serve you the first orange juice you will have trouble picturing our faces. Look closely now. See your father's neck. The color of our hair. Count your mother's wrinkles. After your first little shiny packet of peanuts." "They'll really not know us?" his father said, pretending to be cheered at this fading inventory. At the airport his father hurried them into the terminal--Daniel sleepwalking, bumping against the bags--then went to the car with an air of showy secrecy. "Forgotten it," he mumbled. When he met them again inside he was carrying something. It looked like a tool box. Or a fancy pet container. He handed it to Adrian. It was filled with a glistening and airy mound, a selection of Uncle Con's pastries. "But what am I going to do with this?" said Adrian. "You're going to take it to England on this plane," said his father. "Dad, it's a wooden box." "Yes." "Your father made this especially, Adrian," said his mother. "So nothing is crushed, see." "I see." They all looked at the box. It had brass hinges and was silky with varnish. Daniel pushed out a dreamy hand and caressed the smooth wood. "What kind of wood is that, Stan?" his mother said. "Rimu, of course." "A rimu box," she said, putting her hand on top of Daniel's. Adrian felt the meanness in himself rise. Suddenly he was swollen with it. "But paper might have done," he said. "A paper bag!" said his father. He looked to his wife. "To arrive in England with a paper bag as if I have not been a builder all my life, and could do no better than paper. My God." "Your father spent hours on it," his mother said. "I should have saved myself the trouble and got him a paper bag. Then he would be happy. As if I was some Japanese person skilled at paper." "Shush, Stanni, there are people." "Of course there are people! People giving gifts, people accepting them with smiles and tears. It's an airport we're in." "I'm just talking about weight," said Adrian, depressed that he should have encouraged, even initiated this sourness, and that his leaving couldn't impress a fresh pattern on their relations. "It's great. The box is great." His father turned away. "Well, it's really for the boy anyway, so you don't have to say anything. Or if neither of you want it, then give it to Stefan, what do I care, I've given it to you now. Your cousin, maybe he still appreciates such things. But it's Daniel's box really." Daniel was slumped once more in a plastic bucket chair. He looked up when he heard his name, but no one was looking at him. He was used to this. In the courtroom your name was always being said but no one wanted you to do anything except sit there quietly, though sometimes you had to stand up in your new tie, which was only half the size of a real tie but which still hurt, though if you ran your finger along the edge of the new comb in your pocket you didn't seem to notice how sore your neck felt. Even when Nana was crying you had to sit there and pretend you hadn't heard your own name in her voice, though it was a crackly voice. In the end it made you think perhaps it wasn't your name, just something people said in court. Like guardian. And custody. And contempt--when Pops started yelling things out and breaking the nice quiet of the court where you were sleeping. "Thank you, Dad, really," said Adrian. "It's just, you know, the allowance I was thinking of. We've got all this hand luggage already. They don't like you to have this much." "You want me to speak to the lady there," said his father. "I'll tell her how my son is a criminal who breaks the rules only because of his father and his too heavy wooden boxes. She looks nice." He started to walk away. "Stay here," his mother said. "Quiet, both of you. You are not happy until there is friction. You don't know how trying it is to be with both of you. I'm exhausted all my life." His father coughed. He turned away from them, took out his handkerchief, and coughed into it some more. Then he wiped his mouth. When he turned back his eyes were moist with the effort. Adrian watched as his mother quickly dabbed at her husband's top lip with a tissue. He shooed her away. Adrian's father had run a contracting firm until his lungs packed in. The dust was bad for his breathing. Now he served behind the counter in the coffee shop his wife ran as part of his brother's bakery. He was no good at it. He crushed the sides of lamingtons, gripping them as if they were sanding blocks, and the cough disturbed the customers. A middle-aged couple had complained. They said they didn't want to catch anything. Adrian's father had rounded on them. "Excuse me, this is a chronic condition," he said. "This is hereditary. You aren't going to catch anything unless you are related to me, and that I frankly doubt. Go! Go and eat your custard squares." His wife had told him to be a little more sympathetic. They were in the business of patronage. Goodwill. Goodwill was something you built up, like an investment, she told him, then you could sell it, realize it. You could realize all these smiles, all these thank yous, and have a nice lunches. He said that he was shocked. He was shocked with humanity. Such rudeness! He had never come across such rudeness as a builder. When people bought their lunches, something happened to them, they became monsters. Copyright © 1997 Damien Wilkins. All rights reserved.

Reviews provided by Syndetics

Publishers Weekly Review

Stretching across a handful of countries and featuring characters from a wide variety of nations and backgrounds, Wilkins's (The Miserables) second novel offers an abundant display of his remarkable talent for setting scenes and sketching characters. The novel centers loosely around two young New Zealanders: Adrian, in his mid-20s an accidental father, and Emily, a graduate-student nanny who ends up chaperoning her young charge to a rendezvous with her German father. Adrian and his son, Daniel, move to London, where Adrian finds work with an eccentric publisher. Meanwhile, Emily and Michaela also pass through England, and the four meet through Emily's old friend Sarah. Wilkins's gift for detail is truly Dickensian‘even his most minor characters are full of surprises and implied complexities. His ability to create complex yet fully believable children characters is especially extraordinary, and his keen ear for dialogue veers unpredictably between wit and poignancy. In a book full of small gems of insight, the one disappointment is that the whole feels somewhat less than the sum of its parts: this is more a series of brilliantly fleshed-out character studies than it is a novel, with little in the way of a larger plot. Nevertheless, it is a tour de force display of a deep and abiding literary gift and marks Wilkins as a young novelist of extraordinary promise. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

In his second novel, New Zealand author Wilkins has created a remarkable cast of expatriate New Zealand men and women drawn together through an unlikely set of coincidences. Adrian moves to London with Daniel, the fruit of Adrian's college romance with a woman now deceased. Emily, a student, is returning with her charge, Michaela, to London, where the four eventually meet, along with an ever-expanding offbeat and eccentric cast of characters. Wilkins deepens his portrait of alienation with clever and colorful allegories and metaphors. Little Masters only suffers from being too rich at times. The expansive but well-crafted dialogue might be better contained in a collection of stories but is still compelling in this challenging novel. --Ted Leventhal

Kirkus Book Review

A meandering account of life among disaffected expatriates that ultimately overstays its visa: a second novel from New Zealander Wilkins (The Miserables, 1993) All the usual confusions that plague young people are prominent among Wilkins's brood, none of whom seems much more adult than the children who have somehow fallen into their care. Adrian Jankowiecz, a university dropout living on the lam in London, finds himself suddenly responsible for the upbringing of his unknown son Daniel when his mother dies and the boy is sent from New Zealand to the custody of his father in England. Adrian, without work, money, or prospects of any kind, takes Daniel to live with him in a squat in Southwark, manages, despite his lack of capital, to put him in a private school, and eventually lands a job in publishing. His boss, a genial incompetent named Timothy Clover, is usually out of town, and the neurotic Mrs. Clover relies upon her nanny Sarah to help take up the slack with the couple's children. Through the nanny network, Sarah becomes friends with Emily, another New Zealander, who looks after the daughter of an American woman in London, and through the Clovers they all get to Adrian and Daniel. We learn a lot about everyone's pasts and their families--Adrian's people were Polish refugees who survived Russian labor camps and escaped to New Zealand, and Timothy Clover is a ne'er-do-well son who has been set up in publishing by embarrassed relatives--but there is an odd absence at the center of the tale. All of the dramas that lie submerged within the plot--Adrian's hapless lethargy, Mrs. Clover's tightly coiled discontent, Daniel's helplessness--come back again and again to the surface but are never fully developed or explained, leaving the narrative seeming rather haphazard and, ultimately, aimless. Rich with shading and detail, but too loosely organized for its own good: a crowded canvas that badly wants some focal point.