The Road Goes On
A historical novel set in New Zealand in the first half of the 20th century. Rowdy Jack is a swagman traveling the back country roads and reflecting on his rich and varied, sad and happy life since he came to New Zealand as a boy. More
From a review by Jack Goodstein, professor emeritus at California University of Pennsylvania, USA.
In “The Road Goes On,” B E. Turner has taken the archetypal wanderer and plopped him down on the byways of New Zealand, circa 1947. Rowdy Jack, is not what we think of today as the ‘typical’ homeless person. A mystic, a philosopher, an artist of sorts--he had taken to the road with a friend after the death of his pregnant wife and the collapse of the economy from the depression as a kind of therapeutic quest, only to discover that on the road there is truth and self knowledge and, above all, vision. During the few days in ‘47 that Turner depicts he ponders over his life after his arrival in New Zealand as a boy. It is this remembrance of things past that occupies the bulk of the novel.
The earliest parts of this account of Rowdy Jack’s life are quite Dickensian. He loses his parents at sea and arrives in Wellington an orphan. There he is thrust into a world filled with all kinds of quirky eccentrics. There is his uncle Bernard Barnslow, a bookmaker, who wonders if boys might not like a bit of port. There is Aunt Constance who keeps bank in a coffee pot and finds it peculiar that boys in England are not taught needle work. And later there is Rowdy’s companion, Plimsoll Bill, who talks about himself in the third person, Dr. Spitz-Werner, a beetle expert with a secret, and Taffy Jones, a Welsh carpenter so devoted to the work ethic that he keeps on making chairs even though there is no one with the money to buy them. There is a foreboding politician called McPherson McPherson. It is a cast of characters drawn with the greatest of sympathy for human foibles and weaknesses.
In form the novel owes a good bit to the picaresque tradition, the episodic narration of the experiences and adventures of a traveller and his companion on the journey. Rowdy Jack and Plimsoll Bill, men of the road, are patently analogues of this tradition. As in the best examples of the picaresque, the road and the journey become a metaphor as well as principle of organization. Life is the journey and to give up the road is to die. There may be discovery, illumination, knowledge, there may not. It may well be that the journey itself is all there is.
If the novel is less concerned with their current adventures than with Jack’s memories and reflections, it is perhaps a sign of the author’s thematic interest in the significance of past experience in our lives: “the deeds of the past vibrate in their place and these vibrations make a mark on the present world and into the future.” It is not merely our own past; it is the past of the world. Rowdy Jack and Plimsoll Bill walk a road inhabited by the ghosts of all those who have gone before. It is only on the road that one is aware of these ghosts, and it is not only these mythic ghost from the collective spirit, it is our personal ghosts as well. It is only on the road that Jack’s private ghost, his wife Shirley, is with him. It is on the road that he can see her and talk to her. In the city she vanishes. When he decides to take up the life of the road it is because Shirley is there.
For all of its mysticism, the novel is realistically grounded in the soil of New Zealand in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a solid foundation of the country’s culture and character which permeates the novel. Plimsoll Bill, Rowdy Jack’s half crazed companion of the road, is perhaps the best illustration. He was, he says, raised by the Maori. His conversation is laced with Maori words and phrases. He is fearful of Maori taboos and wary of their traditions. Though he is mad, there is a noble sanity in his madness--a wisdom that goes beyond sanity:
It is in this evocation of New Zealand past that Turner excels. The Road Goes On gives the reader a glimpse of a world alien to the experience of most and now most probably lost forever.