• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Book review: The Demolition of the Century, by Duncan Sarkies

Michael Larsen reviews a new novel by Duncan Sarkies.

Duncan Sarkies. Photo/David White

Duncan Sarkies has had much critical and commercial success. He wrote Scarfies, one of New Zealand’s most successful films, some episodes of the Flight of the Conchords HBO series, an award-winning play and a novel, Two Little Boys, which was made into a film for which he adapted the screenplay. Phew. So it’s a given Sarkies can write, and with humour. Demolition of the Century supports that premise: its curious plot skips along apace, there are wry observations, clever characterisations and, as you’d expect, farce that borders on slapstick.

The tale is told via two voices: Tom Spotswood, a ramshackle alcoholic who, through his association with the local racing industry, has a big pile of cash. Feeling under threat for his life, he skips town. Spud, meanwhile, makes a living knocking down buildings and flogging their contents, a backdrop that adds great colour to the narrative.

Tom returns to town after an absence, looking to reconnect with his son, Frank, and make up for his inadequacies as an absent father. Spud is also chasing Tom, with a vindictiveness we can’t quite place. And just when it seems it’s all going to come together, the entire premise veers wildly and widely, and we get to wonder what actually happened back there.

Although this allows Sarkies to move into wonderfully tender emotional territory, the shift is a bit like Spud’s wrecking ball: the structure has suffered too much damage and what’s left is less engaging than what stood before. It’s clever, but the narrative can’t support the weight and it ends up feeling like two different books, precariously joined.

Ultimately, the whole is woven back together, but it takes too long and seems too forced: my great expectations were never quite met.

THE DEMOLITION OF THE CENTURY, by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin, $30).