Artist's impression of law and disorder

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 1995, 12:00am

A Grand Surrealist Act by Peter Moreira Maplewood Press $95 IT is to Peter Moreira's credit that he is a Hong Kong journalist who has written a book which is not about Hong Kong. No junks in the harbour, typhoons or Lotus Blossoms in this one, although Moreira is the first to declare that it does contain one Chinese character. Her name is Meryl Ho and she is sultry, but dances to Van Morrison and knows a thing or two about Marcel Duchamp, who once painted an exact replica of the Mona Lisa.

A Grand Surrealist Act - it takes its title from Andre Breton's observation that the most simple surrealist act is to shoot into a crowd at random - is a straightforward lawyer adventure story. Straightfoward except that Moreira, a former South China Morning Post business reporter, tries to do what the Grishams and Crichtons never do and give the story a purpose. He is not so much interested in what his character does, but why he does it.

Artist Philip Campbell has run over a teenager and the police are determined to put him away. He is overweight, alcoholic, belligerent, paranoid. He is also eccentric, but as Moreira observes, maybe that's because artists have to be.

Campbell's lawyer is, for once, not an avaricious individual. Indeed, one of the most welcome aspects of the book is that it does not seek to grandise its characters. Instead it puts them in a normal, pedestrian setting - the town of Halifax in Canada - and lets the narrative do the work. This it does well, with a few twists Grisham-ites may appreciate.

The lawyer, Stuart MacAulay, is not confident that he can get Campbell off the hook. Campbell has not denied killing the boy and has little going for him in the eyes of a jury. He wears an earring and is known for his fondness for Halifax's taverns. He remembers nothing of the night the accident took place. MacAulay's only advantage is that he learned his criminal law from the artist's wily father.

This is the linear half of the book, and it rattles along at a good pace. The thematic half is the question of art, its forces and the fine line between high intelligence and complete insanity. Hemingway walked it for long enough. So did Tennessee Williams, who refused to see a psychiatrist because he believed it would kill him as a creator. 'Do you have to be crazy to be an artist?' MacAulay asks his wife. The answer? No, but it helps. 'An artist who has some psychotic dysfunction, some inner turmoil, will be more revered than one who doesn't.' A Grand Surrealist Act is a brave book in two ways; it gets a handle on big questions and it does not take the soft-option of glamorous settings. Halifax, in its homefire way, emerges as a character as much as the characters themselves do.