Luncheon Sausage Books
Any time I review a new book by Steve Braunias I end up gushing like some rotten little suck-up about how he’s the country’s best, most engaging, funniest writer – about how he knows the seed of a story and how to cultivate it, etc…and, well, here goes again…
Though his latest, The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road returns him to his earliest publications – collections of previously printed newspaper/magazine columns. The more recent books have been road-diaries, collections of longer-form journalism, explorations on a theme that have had him bolstering an earlier version – but this is a book of columns. Granted, there are footnotes and funny asides that add both humour and context – that discuss the after-life a column occasionally has – but this is Braunias’ newspaper quest from last year – to eat at and ‘review’ all 55 food joints along Auckland’s Lincoln Road. The columns originally appearing in the NZ Herald.
But it makes sense as a book, the footnotes documenting angry-letter responses and further conversation on the theme, providing some background and with that wry mischievousness that’s part of the Braunias signature.
Maybe it’s the column form that took me there, and I think he’s always done this so well – but these pieces returned me to when I first got hooked on Braunias’ writing; as the back-page guy when writing for The Listener. He’d interview and review too, was a section editor, but his back-page column was the highlight of that rag then, and has been sorely missed ever after. It was the material for his first few books too. What ties this Lincoln Road near-farce to those Listener pages, for me at least, is the recognition of Braunias’ chief skill – to mix whimsy and silliness with pathos, nostalgia and heart. There’s wit and wordplay, there’s farce and madness, brilliance – often. But in there, somewhere, and almost always, is a heart – something he’s probably not always accused of. The best of his writing has a poetic resonance and here, ostensibly reviewing fast food chains – taking a big ole bite out of Americana and spitting it up across a version of Kiwiana, that main road of eateries that almost every town in this country has, Braunias manages to ruminate on the mild joy of witnessing the next generation, of family time, of the hopes and dreams of immigrant workers, the death of his brother and many more powerful moments – whether slight or profound.
That’s his great and rare skill as a writer. Great observations, stinging lines, absolutely. But it’s all leading somewhere. Unless of course it’s not – which is the case by the end of this collection. He couldn’t quite sustain it, which is maybe the ultimate reflection of the source material and the task at hand, nothing resembling a balanced diet made for columns that ended up falling over in a slight slump. But the best of the work here is inspired, inspired, quite laugh-out-loud funny and a joy to read. And then read again.