Thursday, 22 March 2018

Book review: The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (2018)

Jaxie Clackton possesses a mouthful of a name but you have to remember that by bestowing it on his hero Winton is making a point. His creation is an unseemly young man, from an abusive family background, and he probably doesn’t know how to conduct himself in polite company.

The name is designed to fit the youth like a skin. It fills out in strange places with crooked rawness but his movements are animated by what is supposed to be an endearing quantity of honest sentiment. Never mind that when he talks to himself he sounds like a criminal. We’re supposed to give the boy the benefit of the doubt, as we would wish the cops would. The police are in the frame because Jaxie finds his father trapped and dead underneath a car the wheels of which the old man had removed, for repair presumably. And so Jaxie hits the road, not waiting around to be blamed for the death.

The book starts out with Jaxie driving a Jeep on the open road, the wind in his hair and a lamb chop that he is eating gripped in his free hand. Jaxie’s father was a butcher and on the night he had found the old man bleeding on the floor of the garage, Captain Wankbag, as Jaxie dubs him, had beaten his son senseless and thrown him into the shop’s bone box, a place for refuse to be thrown away. You can hardly blame Jaxie for skedaddling, but unfortunately the glamour of the bumptious wears a bit thin and you can’t be bothered reading about a gormless fool with an underdeveloped sense of his own worth.

Painting the delineations of disadvantage is a worthwhile task for any writer but Winton has made a name for himself doing so, ever since his first novels came out in the 1980s. His misshapen, awkward heroes live on the fringes of mainstream society and no doubt Winton feels for them with great intensity. But it’s not enough for a novelist just to have good intentions, you also have to deploy art to embellish your accounts of the lives of the disenfranchised and desperate. For Winton, the task is too much for him to muster the necessary resources, at least in this novel, to keep me interested.

There have never been so many novel ways of describing the average Australian, as we see with the ABC’s TV shows ‘Upper Middle Bogan’ and ‘Sando’, both of which manufacture humour that skirts the boundaries between the middle and working classes. The model for such productions of course were the comic creations Prue and Trude of Gina Riley and Jane Turner. These two women belong to the elites but they work in retail, and it is in the gap in their banter between their expectations and the realities of their lives that the humour arises.

Doing the working class in Australia well can be achieved, as Melanie Cheng showed us this year with the story ‘Macca’ in her short story collection ‘Australia Day’. The eponymous character is a member of the underclass and we see him in his occasional meetings with his doctor, Emily Garret. Cheng has experience working with all sorts of Australians as she is a GP herself as well as being a writer. Macca has to stop drinking otherwise the police will put him in jail, so he’s seeing Garret for help with the withdrawal symptoms. One day, he isn’t home when his case worker comes to check up on him, and she calls Garret to let her know. Garret knows that if Macca absconds, the police can pick him up. Then she calls him on his mobile and gets through. It turns out he’s on his way to the Northern Territory. He sounds positive, upbeat even. But the conversation is brief. Cheng leaves us wondering what will happen to Macca. But she also leaves us thinking about the feelings that Garret has for her patient. It’s a complex and interesting snapshot out of the annals of Australian life, an unadorned glimpse into reality of a kind that Winton is signally unable to furnish us with.

The problem with Winton’s book is one of focalisation. If you need to use a focalising subject who has a different education level or set of experiences from you, the author, in order to achieve the artistic objectives you have for the work, then you need to decide how you are going to handle such basics of composition as the use of metaphors. Since James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922) writers have been able to use stream-of-consciousness to achieve their artistic goals. The famous Molly Bloom scene in that book is a good example of how a writer can use a poorly-educated character to focalise his or her narrative to good effect. In Cheng’s case it isn’t a problem because the focalisation in the story is through the GP.

Other writers have been able to do what Joyce did, for example Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, both from the US, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer. They gave us credible characters who were from poor backgrounds, significantly at odds from the point of view of education and expressive power from those of the authors, and pulled off the trick.

But Winton seems to be conforming to a different tradition, an early exponent of which was Peter Carey’s awful ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ (2001), where the author used some extant historical documents upon which to base his formulation of the criminal’s verbal delivery. (The book won the 2001 Booker Prize.) Marlon James tried a similar thing in the unreadable ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (2014) where he focalises parts of the narrative through a character who is barely verbal. The reader struggles to come to grips with reality in any form, and the attempt fails disastrously. (The book won the 2015 Man Booker Prize.)

The problem is where the author totally hands over word choice and control over the expressive machinery of the narrative to the character him- or herself. If you do that you severely circumscribe the limits of poetic scope, and it is within these that the plot unfolds. You basically give up your authorial voice and put the controls of the vehicle in the hands of an amateur. Imagine letting a novice drive a car even though they can’t get out of second gear. The car will struggle to travel faster than 30 kilometres per hour. This is where Winton, Carey and James fall down. They don’t fully realise their intellectually-challenged characters, in the way that Joyce did, for example, or Faulkner. It is a failure of art and unfortunately it is a catastrophic one.

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