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Book review: <i>The True Story Of Butterfish</i> by Nick Earls

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the cover of the book

If this was a house, it would be the one Curtis Holland lives in - a classy little Queenslander with a studio out the back in a granny flat, a great record collection and clean sheets for visitors.


Oz-lit tedium in the traditional mode. A half-arsed collage of barely-relevant images (a house, some fish) assembled with the aid of photoshop. This shit really needs to stop. Graphic design is depressingly cheap these days, and the excuse "it's harder than it looks" simply no longer holds up in the days of desktop design. Yes, inspiration is harder than it looks - gluing some google images on top of each other and hitting Apple-T for type IS NOT. And it's all so bloody wimpy. This is a book full of rock musicians, sexy neighbours and underage suburban shenanigans. The cover is pre-faded pastels, with every irrelevant element leading the eye off the page and back to the remainders bin it seems desperate to sit in. Fuck you, boring covers!!!!


Curtis Holland is a keyboardist/songwriter in a band called Butterfish. Despite being from suburban Brisbane, they achieve global success, selling twenty million copies of their first two albums. The third, though, is a disaster. Curtis' foundering marriage finally collapses on tour across the Atlantic. The label drops the band, Curtis and lead singer Darren fall out, and Butterfish ceases to exist.

Curtis returns to Brisbane, buys a house in the ‘burbs, turns the granny flat into a studio, and tries his hand at producing. He spends a lot of time doing not very much, dodging the public eye, and twiddling virtual knobs on his Mac. When he meets his next-door neighbours - a cute single mum with two teenage kids and a swimming pool - it seems like it might be time for Curtis to re-emerge from his shell.

The good

This is the book Earls' fans have been awating for some years now. It's not an attempt to be serious (like the Thompson Gunner) and it's not a young-adult-targeted novelette that's over before you can finish wondering why he doesn't write another Zig Zag Street. Nope, The True Story of Butterfish is a real, HTG, full length novel for grown-ups (although, to be fair, would work just as well for teenagers - the film would barely achieve an M rating, and that mostly for "allusions"). On top of which, it's a low-key suburban comedy of the model Earls learned his fingering on. With Perfect Skin, Bachelor Kisses, 48 Shades of Brown, and his debut masterpiece Zig Zag Street, Earls proved his unique skills in this range and tempo, and Butterfish is (sorry) completely on song.

Butterfish may put Earls back in his comfort zone, but it also adds some zingy and promising new chords (sorry) to his repertoire. He's never made a secret of his love of quality alternative rock, referencing Triple J, the Triffids. the Lemonheads, and many others in his novels as sonic textures that go well beyond muzak. But this is the first time he's involved the glamour of an actual working band in any of his stories, let alone one that has achieved global fame. (In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Earls credits Savage Garden with allowing him to even consider the possibility that a band from his home town could sell 20,000,000 albums. He then immediately notes, as you do, that the two bands otherwise share no similarities whatsoever at all.) Earls makes Butterfish believable by using the humble, fame-averse keyboardist/songwriter as both his and our entry into the loose-livin' laissez-faire lifestyle of the rock superstar.

There's a real frisson, for instance, generated at Curtis' first visit to his neighbours' house for dinner. He seems so utterly normal that Earls gets away with surprising us several times by the slightly tensed reactions of the adult and two teenagers next door. It's not charisma or beauty between them, it's fame - this is a man, ordinary as he may be, whom they've seen on TV. They've read his name in print and heard him playing a hundred times on the radio. The fact that Curtis finds this invisible glitter around him just as eerie as they do won't instantly dispel it, either. The final, strongest refrain of this theme is the one which brings Butterfish's estranged LA-based party-boy vocalist back into the mix Curtis has been crafting in Brisbane. In Butterfish, Earls, as life often does, gives us the news early, allowing plenty of time for our nervous anticipation to build to a Lynchian drone, making it more difficult than ever to react to the actual event itself from a place of quiet calm.

The other theme of the story which surprises (somewhat) is that of maturity. Earls has used boy-men before, many times, and has written several books for teenagers including the excellent 48 Shades and After January. But Butterfish combines them all into one intriguing melody. Curtis isn't just your average thirty year old boy - his excuse is that he's spent the last seven years in a bubble of micro-managed scheduling which provided for his every need and carried him around the world whilst encouraging him to remain completely static and insisting he repeat himself on command. His relationship to his brother - an older one named Patrick, gay, organised, but also totally hopeless in his own way - and the teenagers next door, both sly, deceptively evolved individuals, is utterly realistic and never less than enjoyable to read about. More than that, though, it’s an orchestration both capricious and carefully constructed, able to incorporate the dropping in and out of potentially discordant instruments like the MILF next door, the sexual tension between Curtis and his 16 year-old seductress/dominatrix, and public recognition and how it affects those in the background.

The True Story of Butterfish, like the music Earls attributes to the band, is light and listenable at a level which can both conceal and soundtrack the real emotions inside it, not to mention the considerable skill which has gone into making it seem so effortless (I imagine the band as Crowded House, but that’s just showing my age.) The prose is the simple, smile-pulling wonder it always was, and the characters are every bit as good as they always have been, despite a somewhat more prominent supporting cast than Earls has recently used. As is often the case, simple scenes of two-handed dialogue, from a single interior perspective are so astonishingly, effortlessly pleasurable one is wont to wonder why more authors don't employ them more often. The answer of course being that they do, but that you barely recall them because they're most often utterly unmemorable even while they're happening. To quote White Men Can't Jump (because someone has to), "it's HARD to be this good." Yet you can watch Earls characters walking around in front of you, you really can, and he achieves this with such weightless elan. It's a gift, fuckers, a gift I say. Get out there and watch him go.

The bad

Unfortunately, Earls’ mastery of prose and character means that, to fix what I didn't like about this book, you'd have to go right back to the cborus-verse construction, as it were. There's too much setup to be concluded with complete satisfaction, in short. With a denser prose style, a different writer could've done justice to all the elements Earls includes, or he himself might've made something quite majestic out of a much longer book. Zig Zag Street, my personal favourite, is only this long, but it is nothing more than the story of a recently dumped man trying to get his head around the idea of another relationship. Even The Thompson Gunner, Earls' attempt to cover more serious territory, centres around one strong main character, her career and background. Butterfish, over its themes of the evolving life and the distorting effects of fame, attempts to symphonise two separate potential romances, a failed marriage, the implications of platonic and non-platonic relationships between adults and teenagers, friendship between men, the bond between brothers, the bond between sons and fathers, the results of the absence of such a bond, and what being a world-travelling millionaire rock musician who comes back home to live in suburban Queensland is like. I'm not saying Earls is incapable of covering all this material to a satisfying degree, or that it's not bloody inspiring and thoroughly exciting to see him try, I'm just saying he doesn't quite manage it here. In this book, as opposed to the future books I'm really really hoping this is a precursor to, Earls touches on each topic, plays just enough melody to get us hooked, then moves on. For another writer this could lead to a noisy mess of mashed-together crescendos, but Earls has always favoured the opposite approach. So instead of too many climactic chords, we get too many teasing refrains, beautifully played and evocative of impending crescendos that never actually arrive. Instead we fade to silence with dozens of unanswered questions and the feeble play-out of barely resolved melody.

It's frustrating because the situation itself is cleverly conducted and artfully played from moment to moment, there just simply isn't time to incorporate everything Earls is aiming for. A simpler story would have done the notes more justice, or a longer piece allowed room to build and climax each instrument satisfactorily. Earls has more than proved himself capable of filling every role in the band, but then again so could Paul McCartney and he still managed to write Mull of Kintyre. Butterfish is far from that level of crappiness, but it fails in a way Earls rarely does - through overreaching. Toward the book's end I found myself fast-forwarding through the author's trademark suburban scene-setting because, for once, I had many exciting plots to return to, even while my eyes were scanning the corner of the book and realising I only had half a dozen pages to go and there was simply no way he could do them justice.

Of course, not all his books have traditionally neat endings, nor should we expect any book to, really, not if the author can create something worthwhile regardless. But I think we have the right to expect that elements will not be introduced to the plot unnecessarily or without the author's full intention to justify them in the narrative one way or another. For instance, Curtis' impending romance with the single Mum next door is a typical piece of Earls prose flirtation, all meaningful moments and the possibility of more in the future. It also serves to indicate a certain groundedness in Curtis' fundamental nature, and his desire to recover some of the time on Earth which he lost in the clouds. A recognition of his weak areas, perhaps, and a progression of his central character. The impossible romance between Curtis and her daughter, however, is essentially abandoned at its most powerful moment, with barely a page at the end to resolve it. Like a lot of other parts of the story, it also has many implications - not to mention plot possibilities - for the surrounding elements. Again, Earls is quite capable of taking awkward situations into a horrifically hilarious sort of real-world farce, as Perfect Skin, for instance, demonstrates on several occasions, but he just doesn't have room here. Of course it's possible, within his always-admirable verisimilitude, that Curtis' neighbour might not discover that his daughter was putting the moves on him, just as it's possible that his Playboy-mansion attending bandmate wouldn't crack onto either of them, but we the readers are uncomfortably aware that they simply couldn't, because there just isn't room. Earls wrote The True Story of Butterfish simultaneously as a novel and a play, so it's tempting to think that perhaps the strictures of live performance affected the structuring of the novel. I could understand this in terms of length, perhaps, but it doesn't account for the lack of confrontational drama or narrative closure. Surely these things are even more important in theatre than they are on the page?

I'm assuming Earls did this on purpose - it would be far too disheartening for a fan like myself to think, e.g., that he wanted the plotting stage to be over so he could get down to the polishing he does so well, and thus abandoned the possibility of greater depth and a more rounded product. He must have thought the book was long enough. The problem is, however, that it's not just length. As I mentioned above, I could handle the lack of traditional resolution if there was more packed into the text. Earls' style, however beautiful, funny and impressively readable, is not what you would call dense. In combination with this, the way Earls uses Curtis' unassailable normalness as a lens allowing us plebs to empathise with the life of a rock star actually works against the drama of the book. This would, again, be fine if, as in most of Earls' work, there were only a couple of pivotal moments - say, Curtis' confrontation with his old friend and singer, or the collapse of his marriage - but there's so much going on that Earls' slow-burn subtlety actually works against the drama of the book. Constant overlapping elements disrupt each other's tempos, and when the big moments do arrive, they sometimes underwhelm because the more rapid, complex structure is less friendly to understatement and verisimilitude than his normal simple, life-paced plots.

The two best things I can say about this book are, in no particular order:

1- It may well be the first few bars of a new tone in Earls' writing - bolder themes, more characters, more action, and a backbeat of blurb-friendly glamour.

2- It's still an almost supernaturally enjoyable read. How does he do it? How? The entire book alone is worth it just for the scenes with Curtis talking to his brother and his dinner at the neighbours'. It's great. I had a ball. I just wanted it to be even better.

What I learnt

That Earls is still keen to write artfully lo-fi comedy for adults better than anyone else in the country! Woo hoo!

In short

Title: The True Story Of Butterfish
Author: Nick Earls
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9781741666342
Year published: 2009
Pages: 288
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Humour
Review Type: