By Craig Sherborne
VUP, NZ$30 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

IF JAMES JOYCE had spent his teenage years growing up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, and going to private school in Sydney, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man might have had an uncanny resemblance to Sherborne’s second memoir, Muck. Both are autobiographical, read like sprightly novels, and are narrated by a delightfully clumsy young man. Both follow the usual pitfalls that come with adolescence and grappling to find one’s place in the world. Education, class consciousness, sex and death all pose problems for Sherborne’s Lord Muck (as they do for Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus) as he stumbles his way into adulthood.

When Sherborne’s Lord Muck moves with his parents to a 300 acre dairy farm in Taonga (near Cambridge), he starts to see his parents and himself differently. His mother turns from “Heels”, as he (secretly) called her in Sydney when she was constantly manicured and shod in stilettos and espadrilles, to “Feet” – naked feet with white, cracked heels and broken toenails. His father becomes the Duke, the owner of an estate, the head of what will be a dynasty. And he, himself, becomes Master Muck, someone capable of ordering about staff and lording it over the poor neighbours. But, as life on the “showpiece” progresses, every member of the family is steadily disillusioned. Feet refuses to leave the house, and consoles herself with drink after an exquisitely awkward meeting with the neighbouring farmer’s wife. Muck worries at a sore on his arm – gained while clumsily milking cows – trying to prove by his scars that he is man enough to one day run the farm. And, the Duke loses money rather than makes it, while struggling to maintain the appearance of functionality in his family. “I expect more happiness at this stage in my life and I’m beginning to resent it not coming,” Feet says, speaking for all of them as their problems start to crescendo at the end of the book. When Muck is invited to take the lead role in his school’s musical version of Catcher in the Rye, he refuses to return to New Zealand and to the farm that, until this point, he has assumed his future relies on. Due to his proclivity for singing like Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, and, presumably, his emotional resemblance to Holden Caulfield, Muck is as perfect for the role as he is imperfect for the role of farmer.

The rapid, visceral, acerbic, touching and hilarious voice that Sherborne gives his narrator is both unreliable and slyly transparent. Through Muck’s vanity and righteousness, through his wounded monologues and moments of elation, the relative positions and opinions of the parents, farmhands and supporting characters are vividly present. This narration effectively juggles the paradoxical behaviours and emotions of both parenting and adolescence – the cruelty and the tenderness, the vanity and the insecurity. Although none of Sherborne’s characters are wholly likeable, they are all, subtly, easy to sympathise with and to recognise.

While this is, psychologically, a complex and cleverly (poetically) executed piece of writing, it is by no means precious or difficult to read. At a modest 193 pages, it races through five years of a family’s life together, leaping from dramatic event to dramatic event without unnecessary linking exposition. While this book certainly doesn’t aim to confound the reader, it doesn’t condescend either. It is a fitting, equally entertaining, follower of Sherborne’s last memoir, Hoi Polloi.