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No Man Is An Island, But Derek Hansen Is An Irreverently Successful Advocate For New Zealand's Great Barrier.

By Emil Franzi

MAY 17, 1999: 

Sole Survivor, by Derek Hansen (Simon and Schuster). Cloth, $25.

GREAT BARRIER ISLAND is about 50 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. Its population of about 1,000 lives on less than 200 square miles, there's no electricity or water, and the island has many of the wild attributes the rest of New Zealand had before its population cut down all the trees to make room for sheep. Even today, Great Barrier is an admirably primitive spot; it must have been even more so some 30 years ago, when Australian novelist Derek Hansen set the story of Sole Survivor.

Three near-hermits live in ramshackle homes on Great Barrier's wild northern coast in this story. Their only access is by boat. They are Angus, a retired cop; Red, an ex-soldier psychologically damaged by his experiences as a Japanese POW in Burma; and Bernie, about whom we know little other than that he is old and dying.

The three have established a rude etiquette based on honoring one another's privacy, while depending on one another to survive the elements. This careful balance is threatened when Bernie dies and leaves his lonesome shack to the daughter of a doctor in Auckland--a stranger who once showed him some rare but extraordinary kindness. Rosie Tretheway then gets to do what so many of us dream about: abandon urban life and escape to a secluded place in the boonies.

But "away from it all" has its own problems, from how to dig a new outhouse to repairing the roof, and the absolute consternation a female presence on the island brings to Angus and Red.

Red is totally compulsive and, despite therapy, generally unrehabilitated from the horrors of prison camp. Angus guards his secret identity as a juvenile fiction writer; and periodically he calls on a widowed farmer on the other side of the island. And the rebellious and attractive Rosie is a non-practicing doctor who kindles a romance with the enigmatic but purposeful Red. You also get to know the area's other two inhabitants: Archie and Bonnie, dog and cat of Red and Angus.

But their problems with each other are dwarfed by the invasion of giant Japanese fishing trawlers, poachers who consistently violate New Zealand's territorial waters. The destruction these behemoths inflict on the shellfish below and the birds above, not to mention the snapper and other schools of fish in between, degrades the environment of Great Barrier much in the same way the bulldozers here at home have ravaged our saguaros and ancient ironwoods. Two worlds as far apart as the Southwestern desert and a Pacific island have much more in common than geography might suggest: there's a message here Ed Abbey would understand--and applaud.

If you couldn't get away from the bastards 30 years ago at what was basically the end of the earth, where will you? There's nowhere to hide, so you might as well fight back from where you stand.

That's Red's call. He begins as a coast watcher for a colorful naval officer who shares an interest in Rosie. They're trying to nail the most audacious of the Japanese long-line fishing captains, but the navy is ineffective. Low budgets, scant resources and political wavering at the upper echelons, where the wool lobby wields its influence on behalf of the industry's Japanese customers, undermine their efforts to protect the island. After several incidents, Red begins his own method of monkey-wrenching, with the reluctant support of both Angus and Rosie.

The whole is an action-packed story with a memorable cast of characters, and a story we desert rats thousands of miles away should readily identify with: the never-ending pressure of "progress" fueled by the greed of industry, and the reluctance of politicians to do more than take a symbolic stance.

Hansen is a Brit who grew up in New Zealand, and now lives in Australia. This is his first novel published in the U.S., and it's a little hard to pigeonhole by genre. But if you like Carl Hiassen, you'll probably go for Derek Hansen. Both write great dialog, have a penchant for oddball characters, and understand the sordid match between politics and private enterprise. Hansen, like Hiassen, is a superb spokesman for all the critters, habitats and lifestyles that have been destroyed by some for little real benefit to the rest of us.


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