Monday, 14 July 2008

Thea Astley's 1982 An Item from The Late News ages well. It is a product of mature talent.

Dating as it does from the early 80s, the book marks a time of transformation, of struggle by the Left globally. Though government here was Left too.

Astley has found her timbre and tempo. A kind of lip-synching on Modernist poetry, but in prose, which is a better method of lip-synching because more reliable. Like her other books, this one is relatively short.

In some ways, it stands as a prompt and counterweight to its more famous coeval: Peter Carey's Bliss, which quickly became a film, with Barry Otto, that is most memorable for the image of a woman in a wooden lighter moving away from a drowned church and holding a metal cross.

In An Item from The Late News the only religion is sport, and the only kind of cross the residents of Allbut carry is an empty censer - good to collect the cash they see coming from the mountain of sapphire they believe Wafer has discovered.

For Allbut is a decaying mining town. What Wafer brings - apart from high hopes of a new strike - is his own character.

This being Astley, Wafer is destined not to fit in. But we are discussing a point in Australia's history that operated as a sort of spiritual transit lounge. The town is caught between the small-town pettiness of Patrick White and the general assertiveness of the last decade of last century.

A sort of cross between Sarsaparilla and Mt Druitt.

Wafer's interest in nuclear fallout shelters was already an anachronism, even then. The actual fallout, however, is of a more dangerous kind. The book illustrates what can happen when there is no separation between capital and the law.

In this sense, Carey's inventions start to look a little too sweet and attractive. The title refers, of course, to the public echo of an event that more nearly fits a Mad Max-type world than the drowsy sameness of outback Australia.

Other things don't fit as well. It's always raining in Allbut, a town that might conceivably be in Queensland. But it's in the end a town we've all visited at one time or another.

The kind of town where the Chinese restaurant still serves chow-mein and the heartwrenching charm of the little grey granite courhouse is betrayed by the faux-settler furniture in main street display windows. The kind of town that warns against domestic violence, yet boasts a motel named The Celtic.

Astley's narrator is not named, but it is her voice we wait to hear while Wafer is decidedly sat upon by the general populace, led by Councillor Brim and Sergeant Cropper.

It's also the kind of town - possibly like Palm Island - where the abos get short shrift in the convenience stakes. Ted Wonga is still with us.

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