Spitshine by Michael Botur
Charleston, South Carolina CreateSpace (2015).
Available from Amazon.com
NZ$10.28 exc. shipping.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Spitshine is the third fiction collection from New Zealand writer Michael Botur. Botur works as a casual journalist and copywriter and his work has been published in a variety of newspapers. His poetry and fiction have been published in several New Zealand journals. Previous fiction collections MEAN and Hot Bible! are available in paperback or on Kindle at Amazon.com.
Spitshine contains 16 short stories from a writer considered one of the most original story writers of his generation in New Zealand. It is a generous selection of work: smart, wry, humorous and very stylish. Michael Botur’s stories investigate the vagaries of perception and the ability of language to convey life on the edge with imagination and art so that we arrive, unexpectedly, at the mysteries of the downtrodden.
Botur gives us new, unpredictable views of the world – by turns energetic, exuberant, exasperating, fed-up, ridiculous and serious. He author arranges for things to happen to bad people, with a view to the reader coming to sympathise in some way with them. Markedly different in subject, they all speak about something unspeakable: methods of killing, volunteer work, stealing someone else’s wife, story writing, couch potatoes and more. Reading these stories in close succession left me both exhilarated and exhausted.
“Killers”, a moody study of a PD gang, in a “van full of stone-cold killers”, is an exercise in tone and drama from go to woe. The narrator tells us the kind of youths and men who comprise the gang:
So there’s me; there’s this young G who thinks he’s a MC, Sparkxz; there’s this kinda older-30s type dude who kills bitches; and this original Gangsta like almost 60, just the four of us, eh. Not even half the work crew. I’m butt-hurt e and the boys don’t get to see the Girl Gang at the Depot, I
looooooove them girl gangstas, ‘cause you’re always guaranteed a sneaky root in the handicap toilets while everyone’s waiting to choose a van to go out and do their community service.
The story ends with the driver taking off without them: … “Elvis goes, and winds up his window, and we’re sprintin after the van, but he’s gone, bro, gone.”
In fluid, poetic, but contemporary language, Botur expertly orchestrates his plots giving them suspense and real feeling for his characters. “The Tooth Fairy” concerns the story of two girls:
‘Fattie,’ the homeless went to me, cradling her can of whatever, ‘Thas not baby fat.’ Unbelievable, this hag – big giant Starter jersey juts about coming down to her knees, all baggy, puffing out around her arms, big hole around the neck. Massive cheekbones made her eyes look like two coins chucked in a well of dark brown eye-flash. Her hair was silver. There was frost on her shoulders. Some of her skin looked blue from the cold.
We are told by the narrator that:
I opened Goggle on my phone and went to MaoriDictionary.co.nz. I tried to read the Net; traffic was a distraction. It was hard to spell mocca poona, there were no results on the website, I tried variations on the spelling like mokopuna and that spelling meant grandchildren, like this urchin had grandchildren maybe, but it was cold and my stop was next so I gave up searching, let Tooth do his thing, drove home, fell into my apartment, went to sleep knowing I’d changed a life.
“Princess Pristina” accumulates an implausible number of events: a rundown farm, Pristina’s boyfriend with his ‘python arms’, the narrator going to rescue the princess. His description of her outlandishly embellished:
She still had that sexy pout, that magnet field emanating from her pussy, and those tits were still there, it’s just that the tits were bigger and flatter. Something about her hips too. Wider, with a bit of flesh on them.
Pristina’ man, Blake, with his oversized dinner, the biggest television seen outside the store, the scary ride on the quad bike, and afterwards, the locked gate and the sound of a chainsaw as the couple flee. Certainly these things happen but do they happen in such an amusing way?
Most interesting of all, especially in a book with so many characters – is the plethora of detail that Botur pours into his stories. Details that lend solidity to the stories of these undeniably sordid people. Zara is an aspiring writer: “She had bloomed the story in eleven steps, grown this whole amazing thing from nothing and it was the very first, like one of the First Editions that Popsicle loved.” Josh is “The Couch Potato”, who has to do an air force test or get cut off the benefit. He says to his girlfriend: “I don’t wanna join no gay-arse air force. Just had to do all this shit to keep my benefit. Ain’t you seen Cruel Intentions?” In “Kidney Thief”, two boxing partners, Mitchell and Ski are having a match, but
There’s no fight left in Ski. They leave the ring without saying nothing. Mitchell has to lift up the ropes because Ski’s struggling to get through. It’s been, what, 20 minutes? Far as Mitchell is concerned, 20 minutes is just the warm up zone.
The characters seem to represent the ‘underbelly’ of New Zealand life but are nonetheless very effective. In particular, I found with Bofur’s portraits of Mac and his boy, Ashton, in “McMurder” that this is a scene one might see at any time in a fast food outlet:
Mac hauls his boy off the toxic McDonald’s astroturf and shoulders the poisonous door open, leaving the poisonous playground behind his back. Their mouths hang open as they stare at him. Their mummies tell their kids to say Buh-bye, Ashton. They wave, blow kisses at Ashton. Ashton is a plug yanked out of the wall, disconnected without warning, loose. His mouth spits sparks.
The contemporary characters remain plausible. When Mac leads the screaming Ashton out of the playground along the street towards Carrie’s parked car, he says: “I will not have my son eating poison, nor playing in poison. There’s another place for poison.” But he finds Carrie cramming herself full of burgers:
He’s not listening, just watching her mouth as she licks and chews and crams and swallows. No foam on her lips, yet, but she keeps touching her gut.
The last story, “Manhood”, concerns a male student making money by having sex with women. The narrator says: “They’re all misshapen in some way, these women, but they all have passion under their extra flesh, waiting to be tapped.” After a succession of women, the narrator ends:
You park outside the house of a woman you left one night at dinner when you said you were going to the bathroom. You saw her sticking her fork in a piece of broccoli, then you left. Why the fuck not? Your old man did the same, didn’t he? You have to check three SIM cards before you find her old messages and phone number.
After unsuccessful trying to find the woman and making contact with a teenager, he’s told: “Kay? Who the fuck’s that? Kay doesn’t live here, bro.” Life has come full circle for him. He’s out on the edge, with his own thoughts and feelings, as are many of the characters in Spitshine.
Botur’s Spitshine strikes a beautiful balance between mystery and disclosure, bravery and the desire to illuminate the seedier side of life. It’s the kind of writing which nonetheless keeps his zeal in place. What underpins the whole collection is not a commonplace “accessibility”, but the book’s control and vision of the seedier side of life.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Stylus, assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose.