By Duncan Sarkies
Penguin, NZ$28 | Review by Sam Bradford

THE FRONT COVER of Two Little Boys features an endorsement from Jemaine Clement: “Twisted, surprising and very very very funny.” I can’t agree wholeheartedly with Clement, but his endorsement is an apt and honest piece of marketing. Sarkies writes deadpan comedy with a vein of Kiwiana, a sort of subgeneric space within which Flight of the Conchords also operate. (See also: Sarkies’ own Scarfies, the L&P ads Clement voices, the work of Taika Waititi who also, by golly, starred in Scarfies, directed Clement in Eagle vs Shark, and helmed an episode of the Conchords’ TV series.)

Two Little Boys is shaped like a road-trip story, though the boys don’t go very far. Emotionally stunted Nige runs over a Norwegian backpacker in the early hours of the morning, freaks out, and turns to his even more emotionally stunted best friend Deano for help. It’s clear to us that Deano is pretty loose, psychotic even, but Nige knows he’s infallibly loyal. The pair drive to their long-time holiday retreat in the Catlins to dispose of the body, but their incompetence inevitably leads to disaster.

The body-disposal plotline drives most of the action in the novel, but the more important subplot is the jealousy Deano feels towards Nige’s new Maori friend Gav. The point-of-view shifts frequently between Nige and Deano, and when we are hearing Deano’s voice, we realise that his possessiveness goes far beyond what is normal between ‘mates’. There is a homoerotic subtext here that Sarkies lays on pretty thickly, making sure the irony of these feelings hidden beneath macho bluster isn’t lost on even the densest of readers. There’s a lack of subtlety overall, in this book. There is skill in keeping the story moving, and admirable dedication to following the characters wherever their unsavoury thoughts may lead, but Sarkies’ observations of New Zealand masculinity are obtrusive and repetitive rather than naturally and gracefully implied.

That said, Two Little Boys is a fun, quick read, and at times nails some of our less admirable national attributes with small, satisfying details. It is consistently amusing – a gentle smile plays across the lips – without ever being irresistibly hilarious. That’s a problem when the book doesn’t provide extra intellectual satisfaction to compensate. It isn’t stupid, for successful comedy cannot be written by stupid people, but it fails to show us any new emotional scenery. The Kiwi male’s emotional retardation and inability to communicate has become an accepted cliché (the type containing a firm kernel of truth) and may be rapidly playing out as material for comedy. There’s enough in it to sustain this novel, just; but the next joker who tries it might find themselves clutching at comedic thin air.