Among the Beech

Joe Nunweek on the book behind 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'

NB: This article may contain spoilers for the film if you haven’t seen it. As any account of Barry Crump probably should, it also refers to domestic violence.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople made its Australian premiere this week gone past, and the initial hordes of soft-patriot New Zealanders (myself included) appear to be giving way to actual locals. The reviews here are positive. Having smashed all the relevant NZ opening weekend records, the hope now is that it bolsters some reputations that deserve it – Julian Dennison as a young actor going places beyond niche kids’ film roles, Waititi as a fleet-footed director who could breathe life into 2017’s nth Marvel flick, Lachlan Milne for his fine DOP work.

Weirdly, it might also end up doing wonders for the cultural cache of one Barry John Crump. Wilderpeople, which began life as a spec script of Crump’s 1986 book Wild Pork and Watercress that Waititi was hired to do a decade ago, is realistically the highest profile the writer has enjoyed in nearly 20 years. Handsomely reprinted by Penguin with the film’s production stills, the re-evaluation starts here.

Before dying at what was even then a mortifyingly young 61, Crump had penned twenty-odd novels and memoirs (alternately tall and quotidian tales; the two tended to blur). His debut, A Good Keen Man, sold over a quarter of a million copies – by 1992, it was estimated he’d sold a million copies domestically.

He was Kiwiana’s very own vertically-integrated media brand by the time he died (TV, ads, radio, print). His passing was marked by a mountain of plaudits, more about what he’d come to emblemize than his work or the man himself. Uncrumpishly, Jim Bolger said, “[He] leaves a vacuum in the lexicon of New Zealand characters.” Phrases like “lived life to the fullest” and the “quintessential Kiwi bloke” got fair tread.

Stock phrases aside, Crump was a remarkable and unlikely literary figure, an autodidact who made his way through Ulysses in the bush in the 1950s while picking up any given knack to survive in the outdoors.[1] He was also a violent abuser, a nasty drunk when he drank, a man who wanted to be the centre of attention but not scrutiny. His immediate eulogies were almost irresponsibly blithe about this, and even now the go-to weasel word of choice seems to be ‘complex’.

In the months that followed his death, it fell to rare and courageous journalists like Stacy Gregg of the Sunday Star-Times to cut against the hagiographies and publish some of the first accounts of his treatment of his wives and sons, including ex-wife Robin Lee-Robinson. It was “extraordinarily frustrating”, Lee-Robinson said. “Now he’s dead, the personal risk is diminished, but the myth is harder to beat.”[2]

Later projects like Colin Hogg’s 1999 documentary Crump: A Wandering Starpulled at these threads to greater public awareness. It’s unlikely that distaste for the man’s failings was the only trigger for a decline in Crump nostalgia. The turn of the century saw an increased anxiousness about looking cosmopolitan, and a receding media tide out of the regions. Simultaneously, there was a prolonged estate battle among his large and estranged family. Either way, he’s basically become distant cringe-factor stuff – the gnarly old dude in the Toyota ads my generation can just remember.

So what’s Wild Pork and Watercress like to come back to now? I was able to plough through it in an evening, which is no slight on its writer. It was very much a later work of his, received with a sort of indulgent “oh, another one” grace by critics at the time.[3] It’s not the kind of book that you insist, pseud-like, that people read to truly appreciate the movie. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to compare and contrast, and it’s an instructive example of what to adapt and why.

In the foreword to the 2016 reprint, Crump’s son Martin tells a story about how his father flew through in the mid-80s with a 9-year-old Māori boy named Coonch, letting the kid take the driver’s seat for the entirety of the winding trip from Putaruru to Opotiki. There’s been nothing to verify the story (not sending someone out to find and interview the adult Coonch is 2016’s biggest missed trick for a human-interest story), but the book is a stretch for the writer – Crump’s only novel to pick a child for its narrator (let alone a Māori child), and one of only a few with a meaningful sense of scale.

Crump was a Baha’i convert of sorts by this period of his life, and tried to present a more beatific presence in his press. In one interview, he promised “noticeable changes in writing style” and “no more backbiting and criticizing” to a journalist. Certainly, the tone is gentler. For long stretches, his dry humour is absent. From page one onward, the oddest experience is seeing the craggy Pākehā archetype try and address race:

My proper name’s Richard Morehu Baker but they always call me Ricky. My mother was quarter-Māori and I was born in 1974, years later and a lot darker-skinned than my brother and sister, and don’t let anyone tell you that doesn’t make a difference…

… By the time I’d been at school for a few years I could read miles better than most of the other kids but I wasn’t much good at anything else, and they decided I was a slow learner. They shifted me around from class to class, trying to work out where fat Māori boys who can’t play rugby or learn simple stuff fitted in.

Crump always retained the showmanship to make a story compelling at the start, but he could also be slapdash, a first-drafter when shooting through to the next vignette or needing to squash some exposition into the back-end. Here’s the same narrator’s voice later on, for example:

Another interesting thing was that some of the journalists had declared that the Park Board rangers had had no right to detail Baker in the Te Waiotukapiti because there were no charges against him. One even suggested that Faulkner was within his right to protect his nephew from being unlawfully detained. And no one could say whether the rifle had been loaded or not… it certainly gave us our first inkling of what had actually been going on and what people were saying.

If Ricky dips in and out of sight for the reader, the Uncle Hec of the novel is virtually unknowable. He’s a grumpy bugger who knows a huge amount about surviving in the bush, and there’s precious few dimensions beyond that. Women tended to be phantoms in Crump’s work, and Aunty Bella has little to do but make a couple of delicious meals and drop dead in the first couple of chapters.

The loss doesn’t resonate for the Hec of the novel like it does in Wilderpeople. He takes to the scrub not out of grief, but because the family property is being sold up from under him. The other tragi-comic traits that Waititi worked in and Sam Neill refined – his illiteracy, his time for manslaughter – are missing.

The bush knack and the slender biographical details (like his creator, Hec has plenty of yarns of survival in Australia’s Top End) mean that Hec is almost a Mary Sue for Crump himself. The things the character doesn’t say are intended to be even more meaningful than the few he does:

What kept me from running away from there when things got bad was the way Uncle Hec never cared about my Māori skin. Fat white boys are always less embarrassing to have around than fat brown boys, I knew that, but it never seemed to bother Uncle Hec one way or the other. It was a long time before I gave up expecting him to say something about my Māoriness in an argument, because people like him always do, but he never did. It was a bit of a mystery to me, that.

To Crump, then, the beautiful but brutal back-country becomes a egalitarian paradise. Unlike the big smoke, men don’t care about the colour of one another’s skins but rather their strength of their mettle. Though it’s a chauvinistic picture, there’s a utopian touch to his outlook I don’t think I’d ever been aware of.

In fact, the ‘Man Alone, Needing Only Nature’ theme runs strong and heavy through the whole novel. The book Ricky is constantly fearful of having to go back to Social Welfare too, but it’s a prospect that Crump doesn’t actually seem to know that much about, and that Waititi manages to expand into something both funnier and more sobering in a short running time. Elsewhere, Ricky/Hec/Crump turns the receiver on to National Radio, circa 1987, and it’s made to sound like the apocalypse:

It was hard to believe the news that was coming over the radio and in the newspapers – hundreds of farmers walking off their farms and going on the dole, gangs and violence and police teams everywhere in the towns, the army running some of the country and the police running the rest, and the people ripping off everything they could get away with. Not much wonder we hardly ever went past the store and post office out on the main road these days. “They’re going bloody mad out there,” Uncle Hec would say.[4]

On the whole, society barely factors into it. Wilderpeople is a caper with defined adversaries and car chases, as it should be. Wild Pork and Watercress isn’t quite as sparse as The Road, but it’s getting there. The events of the novel stretch out over two years – the human encounters are fleeting, uncertain, and tense.

The book’s rhythms are mostly repetitive – capture, kill, walk to the next place, survive. There’s a lot of procedural weight given on how to set traps, the right sort of gun to use. Time, alone, in the mountains, taking shelter. It poured in Melbourne the night I read it. More than once, I was lulled into memories of doing the same reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountainwhen I was a child. The very start and very end of Wild Pork and Watercress are its strongest from a writing perspective, but even the middle had a powerful and elemental pull on my imagination I hadn’t expected.

It’s that essence Waititi seizes on and expands into something big, kind-hearted and kinetic. While it has flaws of its own from pulling too hard in the other direction – I’m thinking here of the Rhys Darby cameo before the film’s climax, a pacing blip that plays out like a painful 2 Degrees spot – his transformation respects the original and then tops it. Wild Pork and Watercress is a merely okay book, but its best parts are stripped and stirred in to make something that (I think) is lovely and lasting.

Particularly so if you take a look at the decade of book adaptations in NZ film since In My Father’s Den, most of which haven’t been promising. The Vinter’s Luck ambitiously tried to turn a dense and lyrical novel into a What Dreams May Come-looking wine ad. Predicament took the last Ronald Hugh Morrieson book standing, similarly pulpy stuff to Crump, and treated it with a sort of mindless sitcom reverence. Faced with these, it’s no wonder Lee Tamahori’s recent adaptation of Bulibasha has, by all accounts, played a cautious straight bat, neither loved nor reviled.[5]

The temptation now will probably be for would-be producers and screenwriters to tap into the deep well of more conventionally Crumpish books, and start casting calls for a roguish would-be Sam Cash. Those films, when made, are probably going to be bad nostalgia exercises that elide why Wilderpeople works. Instead, Waititi’s script should be studied for years as a map for how you convert source material into a film. When presented with a good yarn, don’t let it get in the way of a great story.

[1] Crump borrowed Jack Lasenby’s copies of Ulysses and Ezra Pound’s Seventy Cantos – described in Ian Richards, To Bed At Noon: The Life And Art of Maurice Duggan (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997), 299.

[2] I’m hugely indebted to Rowan Gibbs’s comprehensive Crump bibliography. Published in Kōtare in 2001, it also documents virtually every press cutting on Crump up to that point, including the glut of press that came in 1996. Fleur Adcock also wrote about her marriage to Crump on The Spinoffthis year.

[3] The Dominion Books Supplement called it “a good simple yarn”. The Christchurch Star: “What is lacking this time is the humour that has been so evident in his other novels. Also there is nothing really memorable about the characters he has created…” Sunday Times: “a good yarn, though not the same jokey Crump I remember”. This is how the people forced to listen to and review 21st-century Dylan albums write.

[4] Although the novel was published in 1986, Ricky introduces himself as being born in 1974, and turns 13 near the beginning of the novel. Obviously, a Rogernomics-era New Zealand under martial law didn’t quite come to pass. Although the implication that society is disintegrating isn’t consistent throughout the book, the setting must surely make this count as Crump’s sole speculative fiction novel.

[5] I haven’t seen Kawa, Katie Wolfe’s 2010 adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. It’s meant to be rock solid, and boasts some swingeingly good male leads.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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