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Wonder Boy

review by S. Barney - Australian Rolling Stone magazine, April 1996 (issue #521)

Remember when John McEnroe decided he was more interested in the guitar than tennis? He didn't have to struggle with it for long to appreciate how exceptional were his abilities with a tennis racquet.

While it shouldn't be suggested that Stephen Cummings simply zip his typewriter back into its bag, he's still a long way from being as well acquainted with it as he is with a microphone. At the very least, his first novel, Wonder Boy, needed a good producer - that is, a tough editor to focus on the genuinely imaginative passages and lose the more long-winded. It's a kind of rambling adventure story over-filled with dreamscapes, angels and magic, motivated by two generations of unresolved father and son problems.

The action is mostly dominated by troubled forty-ish Charles and his precocious nine-year-old, Max. Charles' dead grandmother acts as guardian angel, providing a running commentary on the events of the story and intervening occasionally in a mischievously supernatural way. In one sense, there seems to be a lot happening as they chase off to Vietnam in search both of Charles' lost father and Charles' lost self. But while some of the settings described are wondrous, there's a sense that on this journey the narration too often stops for a look around when it needs to be moving the story along.


review by Thuy On - The Sunday Age, 28 April 1996

Singer, composer and musician extraordinaire Stephen Cummings' first novel explores three generations of father-son relationships. Charles Mann is a sensitive flower; a lost and lonely single dad trying to bring up his precocious 10-year-old son, Max. Charles is also burdened with unresolved memories of his father, Fletcher, who had abandoned him. Struggling with an equivocal mixture of love and resentment, Charles and Max are magically transported to Vietnam to affect a reconciliation with the now cancer-ridden Fletcher. The narrative pace moves languidly; Cummings takes up along the meandering, labyrinthine back streets of Vietnam where romance intrudes and resolutions are continually postponed. 'Wonderboy' is a gentle, fairytale world in which guardian angels, fortuned deities and mere earthly good samaritans all collude to help Charles conquer his own emotional cancer and exorcise the ghosts of the past.

Disorient Express

review by Jon Casimir - The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1996

Rock star writes novel. It's not exactly the kind of thought that makes you want to rush out to the bookstore but, like life, Wonderboy has a rather splendid habit of confounding expectations.

Despite Cummings's other career - for 20 years he has been one of Australian pop's most lustrous voices - Wonderboy, his first novel, is not vanity publishing. It's not a half-hearted foray by a mind overly convinced of its own artistry. It's not the usual slim volume of awkward poetry that lyricists present us with. It's not a cocaine-snorting, groupie-shagging, rear-seat-of-the-limo rock memoir.

And in a shocking divergence from recent Australian literary tradition, it's not an example of the Urban Brutalist school of writing. It's not, to paraphrase Ben Elton: "Hi, I'm at this inner-city dive watching kiddies do heroin because that's what this novel is all about...Shock!"

With Wonderboy, Cummings has actually set out to conjure a novel from his imagination. You know, like writers used to. He has set out to explore words and meanings. His novel is a journey of discovery, the story of a grown man trying to grow up. And the good news is that it's not half bad.

Charles Mann lives with his 10-year-old son Max in Lovetown, a less than glamorous bayside suburb in south-east Melbourne. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, and unable to make his own marriage work, the wraithlike Charles has spiralled further and further into himself. His heart is like the surface of the moon: cratered, silent, seemingly dead.

But the spirits, mercifully, have other ideas for him. The raucous ghost of his grandmother, in cahoots with his long-estranged father, ignites a plan to lure Charles back into the realm of his senses.

In the middle of the night, in a place that is neither sleep nor wakefulness, a mystery train arrives and magically transports father and son, the latter still in shortie pyjamas, to Vietnam. On a pilgrimage to a dying man's bedside, they wander a part of the world that used to be the Orient, but is here more like the Disorient.

Confusing, busy, shrill, full of strange sights, smells and behaviours, the otherness of the setting heightens the dreamlike nature of the book. It is a place of angels and demons, omens and miracles, faith, love and the everyday joys of a good meal or a cold beer.

Cummings breaks the surly bonds of reality early on in Wonderboy. Charles and Max ask no questions about the impossible events and visions that confront them - they sense that answers will come.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Charles's matchmaking nanna sets him up with another angel, Caitlin. This heavenly figure, however, is real. Flesh and blood and spit and salvation.

As the path winds on, it slowly dawns on all of the Mann clan, in various ways, that life is a tale best told in the living. The book is either magical realism or a subtle retake on the classic horror is-it-a-dream-or-not structures of films such as Nightmare on Elm Street (OK, I'm stretching). Either way, its sense of unreality brings the themes and ideas of the book into clearer focus.

With tongue in cheek, Cummings regularly punctures the pretentiousness of the fantasy, mostly through the laconic grandmother but also, once, through Charles, who proclaims his father's habit of delivering Polaroids of himself, through the oddest and most enchanted of means, to be a gag wearing somewhat thin.

Pop trainspotters will be curious to know that Wonderboy intersects only tangentially with Cummings's body of lyrics. Lovetown has appeared regularly before in his writing, as have references to film stars whose ghostly presences wander the back streets of this novel: Ava Gardner, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Anita Ekberg all drift by at some stage.

But of Cummings's previous work, only Sliding Across A Blue Highway, from the 1994 Falling Swinger album, really hints at the subject matter. A series of almost disconnected images of a Vietnam car trip, it appears in longer form as a chapter here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wonderboy is of his lyrical style rather than a simple reiteration of previous words and themes. As a writer, Cummings is most at home with the fantastic aspects of the imagery and the documentation of minor detail. He steers his ship on a gently humorous, charming course towards a limited enlightenment.

The editing could have been a little more careful in places and there is the occasional lapse of momentum, but Wonderboy, a novel which suggests we stop and sniff a rose occasionally, is a perfectly good way to do just that.

© Jon Casimir - reprinted with permission

Hip coffee table special

review by Phil Brown - Courier Mail (Brisbane), 1 June 1996

When that anaemic rock singer Nick Cave's first novel was published a few years ago it was on coffee tables in all the hippest households.

It was strategically placed, as if to say: "I read Nick Cave, therefore I am..." What? Hip, groovy, credible? All that. Now I'm sure there will be a similar reaction to singer Stephen Cummings' first novel in some circles. Because, like Cave, Stephen Cummings is something of a cult figure, albeit a much more amenable one.

Cummings has never really achieved again the sort of exposure he had when he experienced early national fame with The Sports. But since then he has carved out a niche for himself as an original, somewhat idiosyncratic performer, a producer of milestone albums and a writer of fine, intelligent songs.

In Melbourne he's something of a local icon and certainly there the coffee tables will have their mandatory copies, particularly in the Elwood and St Kilda areas, where all the musicians and underground performers and actors live. In his novel both suburbs are melded into the imaginary hybrid, Lovetown. But let's hope people don't just decorate their tables with this one because it's actually not a bad read - for the most part.

As a first novel from a songwriter it's very good, but it is let down at times by the author's inability to find true voices for the characters. In particular, the disembodied grandmother who speaks in italicised monologues. She's a guardian angel to the main characters but Cummings just can't seem to get her voice right and if the introduction of some deux ex machina like this is going to work, it would have to be handled more deftly.

Sentiment is one thing but integrity of intention is not necessarily art. That is, I couldn't believe the voice was that of anyone's deceased grandmother and that bothered me. I could, however, believe it was Cummings' voice, which is a problem. Still, it's an interesting idea and a way of explaining the action and moving it along, I guess.

What action? Well, the story itself is a tale of generations of men in search of each other. Charles Mann is a single dad who lives with 10-year-old son Max in Lovetown (drive to Elwood next time you're in Melbourne and you'll recognise it). Abandoned by his folks at a young age and unable to succeed at marriage, Charles has recoiled somewhat into himself. But the ghost of Nanna, his grandmother, and other spirits conspire to lure him back to the centre of his own heart and, therefore, identity.

So in the middle of the night Charles and Max are transported to Vietnam on a pilgrimage to search for Fletcher, Charles' father. They turn up there just before Tet, Vietnamese New Year, and thus begins their voyage of family reintegration. How do people get transported, by rail, in the middle of the night? Well, there is some magical realism at work here and suspension of disbelief is required to a certain degree.

The Vietname setting adds an exotic flavour to the story. We get lots of ambience and local detail and with Vietnam becoming an increasingly popular destination the use of the war torn nation as a setting was a good idea on Cummings part and is certainly a world away from bayside Melbourne where the characters live.

Cummings' message is a positive one, that life is for living now and that healing inner wounds and resolving things will make that existence in the now fuller and more meaningful. In that sense it's a bit of a Sensitive New Age Guy novel and that aspect can get on your nerves occasionally. But the writing style itself is quite competent and, not surprisingly, lyrical.

When he remains detached enough to let the lyricism take over without the intervention of Nanna or any other contrivances he achieves a voice that is gentle, genuine and with a certain lyrical integrity. That happy coalescion happens only occasionally, however.

It has already been noted by some that the editing could have been better, that the more glaring indulgences and first novel naivete could have been expunged. Well, that's true, but whether or not Cummings' original ideas would have survived is questionable. Because, ultimately, it should stand as his, warts and all.

He has another book due, Stay Away From Lightning Girl, which should be out in 1997, and it will be interesting to see his progression now that he has this first effort off his chest. Wonderboy is an interesting, if not entirely successful debut.

Tristram Shandy in the 20th century

review by Ralph Elliott - The Canberra Times, 8 June 1996

Whether Stephen Cummings is aware of it or not, his novel Wonderboy is an interesting late 20th-century descendant of Laurance Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Like Sterne's hero, young Max Mann begins his "Life and Opinions" literally ab ova,o "conceived in a pensione in Rome, in Italy," followed in due time by his arrival on the planet in the Queen Victoria Hopsital (since demolished), which is described in intimate detail.

Ten years later the scene of the father-son domicile - the mother having been disposed of meanwhile - is laid in an apartment block somewhere in Melbourne, named in subservience to our trans-Pacific allies the Santa Fe Apartments, and here father Charles and son Max try to live reasonably normal Australian lives. This proves difficult. Charles is haunted by images of his long since vanished father Fletcher, while his matermal nanna floats unseen, but not unheard at least by the reader, in and out of the story according to whatever posthumous celestial directives now rule her existence.

And then , just as Tristram Shandy abandons the domestic hearth of Shandy Hall, so Wonderboy suddenly shifts from Melbourne to Vietnam and becomes, in best 18th-century fashion, a picaresque narrative.

Stephen Cummings knows his way around Vietnam and now peoples his novel with an array of exotic characters, some briefly glimpsed, others more substantial, like Tran the guide and Bim the cyclo-driver.

Of course there has to be a woman, too. Remember the inimitable Widow Wadman in Tristram Shandy? Well, Cummings's Caitlin is decidely more sexy and offers herself to the randy Charles in some highly unlikely places. Eventually, the father-son duo, now a trio, returns to suburban Melbourne, grandfather Fletcher having joined the immortals at the end of a game of improvised table tennis somewhere in Vietnam. If all this sounds rambling, disjointed, and rather difficult to swallow, then just remember the baffling idiosyncrasies of Tristram Shandy and thank Stephen Cummings for squeezing his novel into one modest paperback.

What Cummings lacks in 18th-century erudition and expansiveness, he makes up for in typical late 20th-century colloquial English and an obvious partiality to things Vietnamese. The result is a racy narrative, which is too breathless ever to become dull. Wonderboy is a clever first novel with promise of more to come.


review by Jamie Grant - Who Weekly, 17 June 1996

If publishing trends can be taken as an indication, it would appear that there has arisen a rapidly expanding group of modern Renaissance Men (and women). These people achieve fame as actors, sportsment, artists or musicians, and then discover that their talents also extend to writing.

Cummings, a proven performer as a rock singer, most prominently with the Sports in the 1970's is one such all rounder. But not content with achieving publication, he has set himself a series of technical challenges that would daunt many a professional writer. His novel begins with, and depends heavily on, dream-like surrealist sequences in which the everyday appears bizarrely twisted, in defiance of all possibility and logic. A train journey from Melbourne to Vietnam is an example. The trouble with this is that dreams never seem so interesting written down as they do when we are in midst of them.

Wonderboy revolves around the relationship between father and sons, its point of view alternating between 9-year-old Max and his single-parent father, Charles, who goes to Vietnam in search of his own father. Punctuating most chapters, in another daring technical experiment, is an italicised passage spoken by Charles' grandmother, the purpose of which is chiefly to supply background inforamation on the characters. This is a somewhat cumbersome device; it makes the whole novel a more complex and creaking structure that seems necessary to tell what is a reasonably straightforward story.

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