The author is easy to spot as I walk through Christchurch airport. I recognize Owen Marshall Jones (he drops the surname for his nom de plume) from the photograph on the back of Coming Home in the Dark, one of the most sublime collections of short stories published anywhere in the world in the past quarter century. Why else come to Timaru, where its author is resident?
‘A weekend in Timaru?!’ said the winemaker I’d left behind in Auckland. ‘Are you serious? Bill Bryson was being kind when he wrote it was the most boring town in New Zealand.’
In Owen’s car, en route from the airport to the most boring town in New Zealand, where he has lived for many years (his father was the Methodist preacher there), I ask him about Bryson’s comment.
‘I wondered about that,’ Owen says. ‘I was told that he hadn’t actually been to Timaru but that he always had to earmark one place in his travels as “The Most Boring Place” and poor old Timaru was elected when he came to New Zealand.’
Timaru is certainly uncelebrated. Yet it was the birthplace of the legendary 1930s racehorse Phar Lap, Richard Pearse (who achieved manned flight before the Wright brothers), the world heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons (1891), and the world mile record-holder Jack Lovelock (Berlin Olympics, 1936). The oak tree Hitler presented to Lovelock still flourishes in the grounds of Timaru High School for Boys.
Owen Marshall’s short stories, however, will be more enduring than any Nazi oak or four- or two-legged sprinter. But who is he? It would be a miracle if you had read even one of his short stories.
I was introduced to his invigorating tales late one night in 1993 by a Kiwi wine-grower who thought they might cure my insomnia. The Ace of Diamonds Gang kept me glued for six straight hours. Marshall was an epiphany, and you don’t fall asleep with an epiphany in front of you. Demotic, delicate, unsentimental, ruth
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