Nick Earls is a Queensland-based writer known mostly for humorous fiction about contemporary life. While I’d heard of him, I hadn’t read any of his work when I attended a session involving him at the 2016 Canberra Writers Festival. The session was titled “Modern Masculinity” (my report). Earls was there because of the recent publication of his Wisdom Tree series of five novellas, of which NoHo is the fifth. I chose to buy it because of my familiarity with its setting, Los Angeles.
The Wisdom Tree books are beautifully designed (by Sandy Cull), and just lovely to hold. For that reason alone, I’m glad I finally decided to pick NoHo off the TBR pile and introduce myself to this writer. The books are apparently “subtly linked”, but I don’t think that means you need to read them all, or read them in any order. I certainly haven’t, and I enjoyed NoHo regardless.
The five books in the series are titled by the name of a place: 1. Gotham, 2. Venice, 3. Vancouver, 4. Juneau, and this one, 5. NoHo. NoHo refers to North Hollywood where 11-year-old Charlie is temporarily living with his mother and 12-year-old sister Cassidy who is seeking her break into the movie business. It’s not this Australian family’s first stay in Los Angeles, so Charlie knows the routine. As Cassidy and her mother do the rounds of agents and auditions, Charlie is left to himself. He chases wifi at audition venues. He goes “dumpster diving” for bottles and cans he can cash in at a recycling centre. And, in the last part of the story, he’s left at an art gallery to work on a school assignment that has been posted on the Distance Ed Blackboard site. Dropped off at 1.15pm, he is still there at gallery closing at 6pm because his sister has a “call-back” – and her needs come first. That’s the basic set up. Oh, and there is a father, but he is back in Australia, due to join the family at Christmas.
The story is told in the first person voice of Charlie. At the Canberra Writers Festival session I attended, Earls said that he used an 11 to 12-year-old boy as a protagonist because this is the age of starting to push boundaries, of wanting to be successfully independent but also being a little fearful. He wanted, he said, NoHo’s narrator to be naive about what he was seeing. That’s pretty much what he’s achieved: Charlie is starting to push boundaries – willing to be independent to a degree – but is not so confident that he isn’t a little anxious when his mum leaves him too long at the gallery. He’s lucky that a down-to-earth warm-hearted security guard, Wanda – “a tough woman who has had difficult times, I can tell” – stays with him.
Charlie isn’t, however, completely naive. He’s an intelligent boy who has some insight into the treadmill his mother and sister are on. He comments on the sorts of dream-and goal-focused mantras that his sister follows:
I’ve seen sports clothes that say, “Never, never, never give up,” but is that right? Never? Triple never? What if your dream is to win a marathon and your body with triple-never do that? It’ll finish, if you work at it, but it’ll never cross the line first and could fall apart trying. What if your dream is to be a movie star before you’re old, and it’s a million other people’s dreams as well? More than a million, actually. And some of them, lots of them, have perfect teeth and better luck than you.
Good questions, Charlie.
The second part of the novella involves Charlie choosing an art work for his art assignment. He chooses an anthropomorphic sculpture titled Family #5, which features three creatures made primarily from found objects. There’s irony or, at least, poignancy, in Charlie’s descriptions of the work:
She could have put three creatures in a row, ignoring each other, but these ones aren’t. They’re relating to each other in a way that says family. We can’t help but see it that way. It’s an instinct. So, it makes you connect with them more … It’s a good family. How a family should be, looking out for each other.
The child creature has no idea how good life is in this moment before trouble comes, however long the moment might be. It’s the care the parent creatures are showing that keeps you looking.
There’s also a lovely humorous little scene in the art gallery between the guard, Charlie, and a couple of other gallery visitors, that provides a wry little comment on art, what it is and what it means.
Anyhow, NoHo is an engaging, lightly told but not light story about family relationships. Charlie is generous, tolerant even, about his lot. He doesn’t rail about the attention his sister garners (and expects) again and again. It’s not an abusive or consciously neglectful family. The mother and sister don’t exactly ignore Charlie, nor are they intentionally cruel to him. It’s just that Cassidy is the centre of the mother’s energy and Charlie is expected to understand this. And this is, perhaps, where the naive narrator comes in. We see the family dynamics and recognise the potential pitfalls. Life is seemingly good now but trouble is very likely around the corner. Will the family unit hold?
I thoroughly enjoyed NoHo, partly for Earls’ evocation of the place – it made me laugh at times – but mainly for its delightful narrator and his insights into what makes a family. I wish him well!
(Wisdom Tree 5)
Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015