an edited version of Raewyn Alexander’s review of the book

The Road Behind – (Punk just Sucks Now)

an edited version of Raewyn Alexander’s review – full review available at:

Those of us who were around in 1979 may say punk sucks now, but if we’ve got any shred of memory left at all we also remember the exhilaration of the somewhat blistered release of that furious music, the roaring simplicity (and bliss, ironically) of its honesty. There is no such thing as a typical punk rocker, but the main character, Mark in this novel, (singer in a punk band) like many angry young men found it easier to stay antsy, to keep running from whatever difficult emotional state he had to work through in order to learn better.

I need to say I know this writer, I was around for the first ever punk gig in Auckland and Griffiths’ band was formed soon afterward, Proud Scum. I’ve always admired his way with words, however I think people close to me know I rarely lie about my opinions of writing. I wanted to review this book because it intrigued, puzzled, annoyed then had me reading so fast I almost ran out of breath.

Mark in this story, he seems to drag punk along with him like an old dog, an animal long past being capable of travelling all the time and still standing guard.

The other characters are strong, individual and necessary while there are many of them too.

I appreciated how most people in this book did show us quite a bit about themselves, action came at me in detail and often.

Supernatural experiences of Mark’s jeweller brother were really well written, maggots, worms, skulls and all. This kind of gross or obvious imagery can appear trite or overwrought but I found this ghoulish section believable.

Also, a tragedy which devastates Mark’s family and then, various family get-togethers with dramatic conversations were well drawn, with just enough imagery, for the most part. The various letters between characters were a fine way to add more information and texture too, although they could’ve been in the same font as the rest of the story, really.

About one third to half-way through I started to get extremely annoyed and impatient with Mark. A good sign. I could read the sprawling story and stay emotionally involved. Some people think a book, play or film is supposed to please them, the characters are supposed to be people they admire from the very beginning, I prefer to think a good storyteller engages the reader’s emotion and takes them on some kind of journey with the characters. In, The Road Behind, the reader experiences whatever it is these fictional beings go through so vividly they react like they’re in the book themselves, so Griffiths’ characters feel like real people.

A great deal of our local literature in New Zealand lately seems to dilute difficult scenarios, as if people here live in some kind of ad-world or we’ve believed our own PR. So, it takes a NZ novelist now living in Australia to point out just what life was like in the late 1970s, around that time, then what certain sensitive people went through since. Perhaps life’s still a trial for some, surely, and these experiences do matter? Disillusionment and a determination to stay excited, to stay creative and in touch with like-minded others anyway was the strongest force in punk for those brief few years it truly existed, to me, this book shows what this strength feels like, a strange, youthful, naive bravery clouded with sadness which demonstrates how much better an alarming life may be without idealistic claptrap.

I think Griffiths shows in this novel how easy it is for a young man to stay angry, to keep messing things up, to decide the way of the world is so difficult he has to suffer or he doesn’t know he’s alive. Then he shows how this is unbearable, so sex, alcohol, running away and more all serve to avoid troubles but make more difficulty. Like I said though, Mark the main character really annoyed me. I started to think that if he didn’t start to change soon, I’d stop reading.

The writer then cleverly introduced subtle changes, (which I didn’t notice really til I thought about them later), one or two other characters different those before or old characters who’d moved on and had new things to say. Mark with his many talents, driving, fixing cars, gift of the gab, sex appeal and general interest in other people – especially new people – kept on with his adventures and mishaps, but hope coloured things a little differently.

On top of Uluru, the legendary enormous red rock in the middle of Australia for instance, Griffiths sets a beautifully understated piece of prose showing how landscape, light and isolation can start to provide an opportunity for insights with somebody in difficulty, (or just ignorant), a man who’s literally looking for a new way forward. The road behind him is dragging along too much, it’s like he wants to cut it loose but maybe he has to turn round and go back, see what it looks like then? This is writing about contrasts and it’s really handled with some mastery.

In many ways, Australia itself plays a part in the story like it is a character too, while then New Zealand is shown through an Australian’s eyes later. This book could not reveal insights in the same way if it only featured New Zealand, our smallness and lushness would not allow desperation to show in the same way at all. I loved the way male and female also were used to indicate differences and then, common ground, while different age groups and different times also provide light and shade, an abstract picture for interest and edginess.

The book has a reasonably consistent style while at the same time it changes throughout with pace, tone and mood making the story alive, keeping interest. Sparse description makes the story run fast, then more detail appears when the mood’s more introspective or there’s a change about to happen or Mark really has to learn something new, while the language itself is inventive enough at intervals to spark a need for the reader to know more, generally.

Then there’s this old man, he fixes fabulous old American cars, “One of his eyes seems to be permanently stuck on high beam,” his fatherly advice about accepting life’s changes – all this given without prompting – contrasts with Mark’s sullenness and escape routines. The old man could be a character from an ancient legend.

The writing’s pretty clear and straightforward for the most part, with some fine metaphor and simile now and then to enliven passages and provide some light relief. There is little in the way of description of how people or things look, but plenty about how things feel. At times I found this claustrophobic, since a young man seems to, in this case anyway, have limited feelings and they often overwhelm him, while he over-indulges his worst desires and of course feels acutely ill or gets himself into strife far too often, so the blows and the nausea did make for terrifying and ill-inducing reading, at times. Again, I think this is a good thing. I believed the trials were real. Also, it felt like being allowed to see inside a world I’d otherwise not know much about.

I secretly liked the control shown by this writer, but strangely didn’t want to admit it at first, in case my admission broke the spell.

When, by the way, descriptions of difficulty, illness, horror or strangeness are lingered over, or fetishised in writing I find them unappealing and perverse, however in this case pretty well every single word for the most part needs to be there I’d say. The editing is really very good.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot and say what happens, but I know I was engaged enough to start to think I knew what I wanted to happen. Some of my ideas about the fate angry young Mark, a performer and youth fast getting old, deserved, would’ve shocked him. A few of his friends in the book showed they’d read my mind, too.

He had some natural charm though, his appeal to beautiful women for instance had to come from somewhere and Mark’s observances and self-examination while stumbling around in the melee of his wilful damage, painted a person with the capability to grow stronger, to change or redeem himself in some way. I found these more intelligent habits gave me hope and kept me reading, as much as wondering what other stupid thing this young man was going to do.

I suppose in a way this book could be called a requiem for an age that could never last long, and a requiem is after all the sorrow and wreckage, usually a beautiful thing. The loveliness of ruination, a celebration of accepting the inevitable with courage. Punks were scared and acted to create something new anyway, that’s brave.

Mostly, this book The Road Behind showed people I believed existed, Mark and people he knew lived, they interacted and told me a wild story, gave me insights into the world of a young man then how he grew older and what happened then. If it has a few cliches, well, a punk singer turned taxi driver, set designer and builder or mechanic ain’t no English professor so what did I expect?

Punk does just suck now but there is life after even the wildest youth, if you survive. What would you make of it?

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