Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tim Winton

Read Tim Winton. Walk, run, or ride to the nearest bookstore and pick up one of his novels. I've read three of them so far, and I'm impressed, very impressed. I should have discovered Winton long before now. He's prominent in his Australian homeland, where he's won the Miles Franklin Award three times. That's the award that's given annually to the best Australian book or play. He's also been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize.

As you'll see if you check out his Wikipedia entry, Winton is all about place. In his case, it's coastal western Australia. In the entry, he's quoted as saying, "The place comes first. If the place is not interesting then I can't feel it. I can't feel any people in it." That I find intriguing, and there are many writers like that. As for me, place is little more than backdrop when I'm writing. I'm much more interested in the way the characters bang up against one another.

The least of the three novels by Winton that I've read is Breath. It's the least only in comparison with the others because it's still damned good. It's basically a coming of age story, about the teenaged Bruce Pike. He lives in a small logging village close to the western Australian coast, and surfing is the vehicle through which Winton explores Pike's relationship with his best friend Lonie and their sometimes mentor, sometimes enabler, a former pro surfer by the name of Sando. It is through surfing, and at the urging of Sando, that the two boys test their manhood and push themselves to their limits, even unto the brink of madness and death.

I read Cloudstreet next. All I can say is, wow! It's the story of two working class families who live together in a big old house at One Cloud Street. Their lives are chronicled over a twenty year period, from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties. Winton makes an interesting choice for family names, the Lambs and the Pickles. The Lambs are an industrious lot. They turn the front of the house into a small store that becomes quite popular in the neighborhood. Their motto could be said to be, the Lord helps those who help themselves. The store is proof of it. It brings in enough income to support the family. The Pickles, on the other hand, are fatalists, and they always seem to be in a pickle. The old man is a compulsive gambler, who loses every bit of money that comes his way, and his wife is a street gutter alcoholic. Some have called Cloudstreet the great Australian novel. I don't know about that. I'm in no position to judge, but it's a wonderful read.

Dirt Music takes place in a fishing village, again in western Australia. It's the story of three people. There's Georgie, a former nurse who is living with Jim Buckridge. He's a commercial fisherman who is the local "boss", and he has a reputation for violence. Luther Fox is the sole surviving member of a family of local outcasts. He makes his living by fishing on the sly. He doesn't have the expensive commercial license required by law, and the locals consider the likes of him to be little better than poachers who are taking food out of their mouths. Fox has a brief affair with Georgie, and ends up fleeing to the wilds of northern Australia in order to avoid a confrontation with Buckridge. Unbeknownst to him, Buckridge follows with Georgie in tow. I didn't much care for the ending. It was a bit too melodramatic for my taste, and there was an element of deus ex machina in it as well. That said, it didn't really detract all that much from the book as a whole.

So, what is it that appeals to me in Winton's work? After thinking about it some, I've concluded that it's the desperate attempts his characters make to escape the ordinariness of everyday life. That's an endeavor I can appreciate. Let me put it in the words of one of Winton's characters. In Dirt Music, Luther Fox catches a ride with an elderly couple. They reveal that the woman is dying of bowel cancer, but that she has declined the draining, medical treatments. Instead, she's gone to see the sights of the Australian wild. As she put it, she didn't just want to die, she wanted to die with music. It's like that with all of Winton's characters. They don't just want to live. They want to live with music. Amen to that. Cue the orchestra! Strike up the band!


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