Pearly Gates is a very important man, in his own eyes. He has been the Mayor of a small north Otago town for some years, and at the beginning of the book he is considering running for a third term. He was almost an All Black. He runs a successful independent real estate business. But all is not well with this picture.
Pearly Gates is a study in white male privilege, Pearly (nickname since childhood for Pat Gates) is gently sexist, gently snobbish, and only does service or favours for the benefits it will bring him. He is judgemental and critical of most of those around him. He is suspicious of new things and confident in his own views of the world. He doesn’t know why his brother, Richie, doesn’t admire him more for his achievements, while also, puzzlingly to himself, gently begrudges his brother his life on the family farm and his good relationship with his son.
Pearly considers himself a success: “He found his own life of unfailing interest and accepted that it might well be instructive for other people to be informed concerning it.” He believes he handles things deftly and fairly, and when things go slightly awry, he always has a view that will put others at fault. His relationship with his son, Kevin, however is a worry, living in Auckland and only contacting Pearly and his wife, Helen, when needing money. But the reader only gets Pearly’s disgruntled and feeling-a-lack-of-gratitude angle on the relationship, and there is enough hinted at to imagine there would be a whole other side to the story if we were to hear Kevin’s voice. Pearly’s relationship with his daughter and her family however is perfect – they are on the other side of the world living in Wales.
Another slight irritation for Pearly is that there is another likely candidate for the mayoralty, Philip, his deputy. Philip is younger greener and has a following. And Pearly’s decision to do something to ensure his own victory starts his own trajectory of assured primacy on a wonky course. Annoyances start building up: His knowledge of how he won the election, the arrival of Andrew, another high achiever (but in Pearly’s eyes a lesser man) to the local school reunion, Pearly’s life is starting to be punctuated with acquaintances’ illnesses and deaths, and a series of anonymous and abusive phone calls starts, which seem to find Pearly wherever he is.
Pearly’s wife, Helen, is his sounding board, and increasingly her responses to his concerns are quire cutting, reminding him he is just the part-time Mayor of a “tin-pot small-town”. Pearly wonders longingly about his Father’s love letters his Mum kept, but he doesn’t consider such things relevant to his relationship with Helen, admitting “he had protected himself with a semi-facetious mode and the emphasis on the outer life”. Helen is planning on going back to work as a nurse at the local hospital, and with Pearly’s gently patronising manner, I was hoping she would gently take off with her best friend, Alison.
Another support for Pearly’s ego is Gumbo, another childhood friend, who is faithful to a fault, and who is kept by Pearly as both support and a show of class magnanimity, Gumbo being a groundskeeper at a primary school. And it is Gumbo who is at the heart of an event at the school reunion which the novel slowly builds to, an event that forces Pearly to be somewhat more self-aware. Aiding this moderate re-evaluation is Andrew, who, not being quite the person Pearly had remembered from school, surprisingly becomes Pearly’s ‘confessor’.
Pearly Gates is a novel about a time in transition, climate concerns, random acts of arson, abusive anonymity, and the realisation that you should be accountable and genuine whoever you are and whoever you are with. I don’t know that I hold out much hope for Pearly, but I appreciated being part of his life for a while.