Review — Dorothy Porter — El Dorado (2007) Sydney: Picador.

Porter’s last verse-novel El Dorado plunges the reader into familiar territory for those who have read her work before. A fascination with risk and extreme experiences characterises Porter’s work and her oeuvre as a whole makes a tremendously strong case for the place of poetry as a medium especially fitted for exploring life lived on the edge. In El Dorado the extremity takes on various guises: sexual loneliness, old grievance, vengeance and desire. Like the best crime fiction it is a snappy, compulsive read; each poem is sharp, tautly written in Porter’s characteristic ‘sucker punch’ style. She does not want to lull her readers into contemplation; rather, she wants to induce the thrill and vertigo of danger. However, she also uses her medium to explore traditional literary themes such as mortality, love and responsibility. In El Dorado Porter explores the tension between the desire for safety and the attractions of risk, always pointing up the fragility of all apparent security that one event can rend: “all of us/no matter how brave/or timid/are walking on thin ice/…/In the ice’s time./When the cold black water/will receive/and swallow us/leaving nothing/but a passing warm steam/to show briefly/where we had been” (10).

The story is mainly concerned with Detective Inspector Bill Buchanan who is on the hunt for a child serial killer who murders his victims “unmolested” and then buries them “ritually, even gently” with a gold thumb print pressed into their dead foreheads. The topic is repellent and deeply creepy and it was for this reason that I did not read the verse-novel for three years after it was issued, despite being a Porter fan.  After having been devastated for days afterwards upon reading Sonya Hartnett’s Of a Boy and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones some years ago, I was not prepared to endure another text devoted to violently dead kids. However, I finally picked up Porter’s last narrative offering and I am glad I did, although it is not my favourite of her work.

The narrative switches between the perspective of Bill Buchanan as he struggles to solve the case, and his best mate Cath, who now works in Hollywoodas a “Imaginary Worlds Specialist Director”, offering expertise on how to make fantastic worlds plausible in celluloid. Bill imports his old friend — and unrequited love — to help him on a case that seems to have some relation to fantasy worlds, particularly Neverland, the world of Peter Pan created by John Barrie. As it is revealed that the killer lures children with the promise of finding Neverland, it becomes apparent that the murderer has a peculiarly bent line in preserving childhood innocence by killing young fantasists before they reach the age of sexuality. The motive seems to be that the murderer wants to kill the children to preserve the “gold” purity of their selves, before the tarnish of experience and contact with the adulthood sets in – hence the Peter Pan motif, Barrie’s personification of the desire to never grow up.

Porter uses this plot to explore themes of innocence and experience, and the pitfalls of becoming either too cynical, or failing to emerge from the Neverland of childhood. Bill’s struggles as a single dad of a belligerent teenage daughter, Caitlin, sketch issues related to the relentless sexualisation and commodification of young people, before they have time to grow into a more individualised self – the current malaise of kids growing up too fast in a cheapened way, before their emotional maturity has time to catch up. Cath’s affair with a much younger woman and her own failure to develop a certain emotional maturity indicates that despite the lucrative career she has made of having remained in her childhood fantastic world, she is paying a price for her arrested development. Finally, Bill, seemingly the most mature of the main characters, is on the one hand stuck with his childhood infatuation with Cath, and on the other, world-weary to the point of desperation. Hence, El Dorado traces the line, so elusive and fine, between cynical corruption and childish evasion of reality. The novella poses questions about to what extent we need to retain the childish sense of wonder and imagination to do our work in the adult world with creativity and love, and to what extent we must put aside childhood to behave with integrity, to be grown ups.

Porter’s specialisation is what in The Monkey’s Mask (1994) she called “wild wild risk.” This remains a theme in El Dorado. In Porter’s aesthetic, risk is what threatens the self, but in doing so, also keeps the self alert to life’s strange and unexpected turns. Poetry is given a special role in Porter’s world for elucidating the fascination of dangerous yet seductive states. She favours an honest appraisal of how we flirt with risk, how desire tempts us to gamble our security in order to experience “the rush in the blood/ the kick in the guts” (MM, 162). Yet she has no time for those who want it both ways – who want the thrill without putting themselves on the line. In The Monkey’s Mask the villains are high-fliers who toy with others to satisfy their cravings for risqué sex while hiding behind their publicly respectable image. The character of Bill McDonald, a hypocritical Christian poet, embodied the nastiness of a sexuality perverted by puritanical denial: “sweaty, nasty/like a missionary/ with a prayer book/ in one hand/and a damp erection/in the other”. This smaller theme in The Monkey’s Mask is expanded upon in El Dorado.

In relation to the issues of what might be called ‘Peter Pan-dom’, or adults remaining in a state of emotional adolescence, Porter has also touched on what happens when childhood is not innocent, but merely a notion coopted by sour Puritanism. The villain in this second crime novel in verse is a man stunted by childhood trauma, wedded to the idea that children must be saved from adulthood’s corruption. He is also driven by revenge on childhood tormentors, emotionally frozen at age eleven.

Despite the thematic sophistication of El Dorado, I did have trouble with this putative motive of the crime. Issues of timing in the narrative sequence interfered with the plausibility of personal revenge as a motive. The plot’s ending was also abrupt, with the resolution oddly foreclosed. Nonetheless, Porter’s firebrand wit still kept me turning the pages and savouring her words.

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