Shirker

Ellerslie Penrose is a futures broker who stumbles on to the strange story of a Victorian escape artist named Palmer and a lost life that echoes his own.

Excerpt

I was born beneath a bigger sky. The year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and seventy-four – for years were the Lord's then, and He was ours. Planets circled undiscovered. Neptune was a 28-year-old, Mars lined with fresh canals. The sparkling blackness between the gas-lamps: your sky is so much smaller, bereft of distance and mystery. You look up to it and wonder a little less.

I admit to a similar transformation. I too have been reduced in the interim: an epic shrunk to a cartoon. I am foolhardy and laughable, now, and this story, when it ends, will be the toast of children and the empty-headed. To this fate, however, I remain indifferent – where children and the empty-headed stand in the new order is hardly clear. To me it seems they are astride you all. Their wants have become giant. They rule you, crowding all with their shiny, multi-coloured toys, their music pounding at the walls. I am tired of your appetite for colour: skin, hair, clothes, buildings, homes, wrappings – everything is vermilion now, the variety frenetic. The bed-ridden Matisse worked on paper so bright the doctors feared it would blind him. He died before that could happen: it is you who have fallen sightless, scalded by your contemplation of brilliant things.

Forgive me. My mind wanders. My sinuses, blocked by the usual city allergies, smell lacquer and wood polish; my cataracts discern the most minute details. I have spent so much time becoming old, you understand, letting go of the things which youthful senses take for granted, that recollections when they appear are clear and vivid. An echo pretending to be a reprise.

I arrived carrying a cardboard suitcase and a brown paper bag filled with notes, coins, jewellery. The everyday amassed, a sum of things far greater than their worth. I can report no pattern to this increase in value: one decade it is china, another it is machines, and another it is buttons. Whatever: circumstances have required me to maintain such a collection. A lonely man draws many things up round himself for warmth.

I think I am hungry. The food is over-elaborate. Nobody comes. I speak to a box. In the weeks I have lain here I have come to love its mechanism. It sits patiently by my bed: it is one of your better creations. When it is listening – which is always, the moment I open my mouth – it purrs, its record light candy-red. I awake in the dark and test it. I cough or clear my throw. And it burns, faithfully. It waits in attendance.

The days are uniform. A series of pillows, plastic cups, cramped motions, pains.

Uniform.

From Shirker by Chad Taylor.

Reviews

New Zealander Chad Taylor's Shirker is a novel out of time: it sources both the tough-talking crime fiction of Chandler and Hammett and subtle Gothic supernaturalism… But it's also relentlessly plot-driven, a rarity in this age of cutesy post-modernism… Aside from a passing mention of the Internet, [the novel] could have been written 60 years ago. Taylor's mature, highly refined prose suggests a young author with an old soul – his resistance to fashionable cynicism and the paucity of pop-culture references gives Shirker a timeless quality. – Andre Mayer, eye - July 2000

Imagine Raymond Chandler filing from New Zealand with a little help from Anne Rice and Jean-Paul Sartre, and you're still not close to imagining the oddity of this weird, wonderful novel. We begin with futures broker Ellerslie Penrose stumbling upon a mutilated corpse and pocketing the dead man's wallet; as Penrose takes it upon himself to find the killer, he becomes involved with another, century-old murder and some mighty funky characters. Taylor's structural instincts are so unerring and his tersely elegant language so seductive that the story never once falters - even as it morphs from a murder mystery into an exploration of passion and mortality. – Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly (December 01)

The work of a good storyteller and, as debuts ought to be, full of promise. – Robin W. Winks, Boston Sunday Globe

New Zealand strikes back… Shirker is a terrifying exploration of violent and sexually charged obsessions - a literary thriller, with prose so cool, and images so compelling, it's film noir in novel form. – Buzz (UK)

Shirker is a strange and fascinating book. It is set in a New Zealand city, but the story seems to unfold in another world. Bizarre events occur and explanations continually elude both the reader and the central character, a man who, by chancing on a murdered body, is drawn into a grotesque fantasy controlled by a mysterious figure. It's a beautifully written and skilfully constructed nightmare from a writer of great imagination. – Sunday Telegraph (UK)

Hip… A terrifying examination of murder and sexual compulsion. – The Sunday Times (UK)

Taylor's prose is colourful yet crisply controlled…the Auckland setting is atmospherically evoked, the action ingeniously conceived and smartly paced.– The Scotsman

INTENSE – Scotland on Sunday

A hallucinatory Gothic mystery set in seedy clubs catering for fetishistic tastes, with a Nosferatu-esque villain casting an ominous shadow over proceedings. With a tight and observant style, Taylor has weaved an engaging tale with obsessive peripheral detail… He may touch upon lofty notions of mortality - but it is his cinematic sense of location and narration that whisks us towards the novel's inventive finale. – The Times (UK) 03.00

Sucked into an investigation of a junkie's horrible death from being thrown into a glass recycling bin, Ellerslie Penrose uncovers a strange world of kinky brothels and mysterious players in a weird deception where fantasy and reality blur. An old journal holds the key but someone is prepared to murder to hide its most peculiar truth. Taylor's prose has an old-fashioned precision that greatly enhances the notions of time put on hold and life without end that permeate the plot and serves to keep the reader temporarily off-kilter. – The Herald (UK) 03.00

…Much more ambitious, and weaving a seductive web of existential anomie, is Chad Taylor's Shirker (Canongate), a fascinating and obsessive novel from New Zealand… Ellerslie Penrose, a part-time futures broker, finds a junkie's body in an Auckland dumpster, steals his wallet and embarks on a hallucinatory journey into the shadow life of the dead man. This brings him into contact with fantasy bordellos, mysterious manuscripts, bizarre antiques dealers, and a sleazy nest of quirky happenstance. Oddly detached from its subject matter, this is as hypnotic as they come; it's also miles away from the conventions of your average country-cottage crime or pig-headed cop yarn. One for the connoisseurs.– The Guardian (UK) 25.03.00

If you are just looking for something different and a bit challenging at the end of summer, I recommend Shirker, the first novel published in the United States by New Zealander Chad Taylor. It is a haunting and hallucinatory story in which the protagonist appears to die in the opening chapter but returns to narrate the story of the last days of his life. Weird? You bet… I found the story profoundly compelling, one that will take me a while to shake. – St. Petersburg Times (US) 17.08.00

A tale that is hypnotic, sensual, and hints at the supernatural… You probably won't read a stranger mystery novel this year. – The Plain Dealer (US) 17.08.00

A complicated journey into a world of not-so-sensual erotica and sometimes confusing intrigue, compelling in its ugliness and powerful in its obscurity. – Gadfly (US) 10.00