Crazy love is about addiction, art, love with no boundaries, and the burden of mental illness. It is sad, beautiful, frustrating, and tantalising. It is about survival and despair and mundanity. It is about Vicky Miller and the destructive love of her life, Billy Cooper. It is semi-autobiographical and totally charming and totally worrying at the same time. It is extraordinarily honest, and a perfect example of how messy life can be.
Vicky had a far-from-ideal upbringing: “Weird to have such a disappointing mother be disappointed in me”. She has a microsecond stint in the army, where she learns to make a tight bed, but doesn’t find Richard Gere (it is the 1980s). A post-abortion infection means she returns to her hometown, Napier. After some dead-end jobs, she washes up in Art Deco ‘Dire Straits’ – a living complex full of the unemployed, partially employed, and dodgily employed, all with no families to fall back on.
Crazy love evokes the 1980s with song lyrics interspersed in the narrative and descriptions of the unique fashions of the time. It is an interesting time in Aotearoa’s political history, but Vicky is only mildly interested in politics – she is too disenfranchised to take much notice. She does write to Robert Muldoon to voice her frustration at only having enough money for one pie a day – she gets a response: $1 for one extra pie. It is a funny/not funny moment but also prefigures the struggles Vicky will have later, with a bureaucracy that, in aiming to help all, struggles to help each. Like many women in a society where social support reinforces female financial dependence on partners, Vicky must put up with a ‘loser-boyfriend’ to survive.
The reply to her letter to Muldoon heralds the unconnected arrival of Billy – and her life is never the same again. Billy is beautiful, “…this punk, he had my attention”. He is a punk, but in a stylish way. He is a high-flyer with big plans. Billy is unpredictable, unreliable, a bit of a grifter, with mercurial moods. He is enticing, and Vicky and Billy get married. Vicky knows that Billy’s successes are mostly mirages. However, initially they do find financial success as a married couple. They have a lovely big house, plenty of money, and two children. They both have the continual need for affirmation, but their financial stability satisfies that.
The reader looks back on this time of success obliquely. Vicky enjoys writing poetry. She raises her children and helps Billy with his business. “Billy and I had big plans over the years. Some succeeded, some didn’t.” Then it all crumbles. Fortunately, the children have left home. Vicky and Billy move to a house with Dawn Raid hideouts under the floorboards and in the roof cavity. Vicky finally admits that the exciting rhythms of Billy’s life: “He’s my yoyo man”, are due to serious mental illness. Vicky is small. She knows she is vulnerable. Due to the many dangerous situations she has been in, she has learned the art of running away. She doesn’t run from Billy.
We pick up the current narrative with Billy living like a wild man outside in the garden, with Vicky inhabiting the house. She finds official help is hard if not impossible to find. She finds out who her friends are – almost all women – the men are afraid of Billy. Billy’s behaviour is manipulative, passive-aggressive, and often pathetic. It makes you wonder if all abusive partners have a serious mental illness! “We are the beautiful-bold. Strong as long as we are together. Billy and I. Only, he has been such an arse lately.” Vicky has always known Billy has viewed her as a wife to look after him while he flourishes. At one point she proves to herself she could kill Billy if she wanted.
Vicky starts writing a novel, it is a long process – she is working on Purgatory, a novel I still think about often even though I read it seven years ago. She is functioning well, while she lies for Billy and complies with his illegal flurries. He is overweight, smelly, yet still strangely attractive. She decides if he commits suicide, so will she. Her children are ciphers for the way she sees herself and Billy. The son is ‘eat-and-run-son’, always leaving and far away yet emotionally closer to her than to Billy. The daughter is ‘surly-girl’, always judging and blaming Vicky. “What if I was to blame for stopping Billy from being the wondrous Billy he used to be?”
“He forgets he’s not the young punk who took on a carload of young dicks sassing him at the burger bar in Napier.” When Vicky decides she is damaging Billy more by covering for him that by asking authorities for help, she provokes a response that illustrates the lack of help for those with mental illness – a ‘riot squad’ arrives. Despite Billy almost avoiding it through his charm, he ends up in an acute mental health unit. They communicate via haiku-like missives. Vicky is alone, grieving for the baby she lost before joining the army, for her beloved dog, for the cat she left behind in ‘Dire Straits.’ She wonders if splitting from Billy would be the best thing for him.
Move to the present: Billy is still Vicky’s “Strange man. Strange, strange man.” He is a conspiracy theorist, but he is taking his medication. During Covid (“a hoax to disguise the fact that there are intergalactic space travellers on earth for negotiations …”), they panic buy wine and tealight candles, not toilet rolls. They have survived, and will continue to survive, as they have the most astounding unconditional love. The reader is left puzzled yet comforted, and at the same time very uneasy, “the perimeter is never secure, really, is it?” A powerful piece of Aotearoa fiction/not fiction.