Anson Cameron, a regular Age scribbler, obviously knows a thing or two about hangovers. He constructed a ripper column this last weekend, just as I was completing Winton’s latest. Anson reckons at his age (and Winton’s, as well as certainly mine) a heavy night on the turps is not for the faint hearted when ‘…your alimentary canal is a Babylonian reticulation, your liver has come unlaced at the seams and your brain has shrunk in your skull like a bladder in a wine cask.’ Great similes/metaphors – almost Wintonian.
Alcohol is lovely, lovely stuff – either in the form of a pale ale, a jaunty shiraz or the juice of the peat – I just adore it. There is so much delight in seeking out the next big thing in craft beer or cider, or being attracted by an artistic label on an affordable bottle of wine – to me labels are as important as the quality of the stuff inside (silly, I know). The joys of the grape and hop I can share with my son and son-in-law. They are not lushes – just genuine students of decent brews and fruits of the grape – they appreciate the finer points. I also pace myself. Four days on, three off. On ‘wet’ days I am also circumspect in intake. Although on occasions I can transform into Mr Wobbly, its been decades since I have been royally drunk out of my skull – to me there’s no fun in that any more. I don’t think I’ve been on a bender since I turned thirty half a lifetime ago!
So the sulphur-yellow hued mornings that the author’s Tom Keely confronts, day after day, are unknown to me. In any case, the cooler climes of my island would perhaps be kinder than the frying pan of a Fremantle summer. Here Keely resides in a residential tower, the Mirabel, that has seen better days. In this novel Winton does what he is great at – spitting out the adjectives that fully, exactly express the flint hard glare of such brain addled awakenings after having, yet again in Keely’s case, being written off the night before – a writing off that erases memory of large chunks of his solo debauchery, aided by copious pill taking. It is about as seedy as it can get with the novel’s opening seeing our bloated, despondent hero contemplating a large, mysterious and wet stain on his top storey living room floor. My God! What is it – is it urine? If so, whose? Surely not his own!!!
This former eco-warrior has humiliated himself on national television, bringing his world crashing down – gone are his missus, his job and his McMansion. He is at ground zero of a deep abyss, with ‘Eyrie’ charting how he climbs out – or attempts to, often one rung up followed by two down. On his way back to self respect he is abetted by a cast-out kid, the grandson of a fellow Mirabel resident, a woman who once upon a time shared a little of his past. The deeply life-scarred Gemma is a double edged sword. She gives him a tad of womanly tenderness but, just as he feels he is making progress, she drags him down into Freo’s dark underbelly – and what a shit-heap that underbelly is!
It’s not Winton’s best. It won’t measure up to the remarkable ‘Cloudstreet’ or my favourites, ‘Dirt Music’ and ‘The Riders’. As for the Miles Franklin – well in my view it is behind Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road To The Deep North’.At his local launch here in Hobs, Winton even seemed to concede this. It’ll be interesting how it also stacks up against Christos Tsiolkas’ and Alex Miller’s latest, which I’ve yet to read. For my money though, these four are at the apex of our literary tree, at least as far a the male of the writerly species is concerned.
Some reviewers have remarked on the ending, and sadly I concur with them. To my mind it was in the form of a literary cliché that is akin to ‘…and then I woke up and it was only a dream.’ It is a cliché that a writer of Winton’s class didn’t pull off very well either. It is almost as though he’d written the number of pages he’d set himself and decided at that point it was time to pull up stumps. I would have liked to have seen it wind down a little more. As Winton has done in the past, he has dashed readers’ hopes for his characters –otherwise, though, is Hollywood, not the real world. Winton only deals in the real world, with perhaps a little magic realism thrown in for good measure.
In the second chapter Winton let’s fly with a killer rant, through his mouthpiece Keely, railing at all that is amiss in the post-digital age – his home state’s propensity for digging itself up and rampant greed being only two of the topics. He lets out a verbal barrage of bile on bogan street life, harassing charity workers on corners, buskers, bland shopping, rat-tailed infants and the lattefication of Freo. It is a cracker – it is Hillsian in class this invective-ridden fusillade. It was my favourite bit. Perhaps it should of come further in for it was all a bit downhill after that.
Am I being too harsh? It is still a beaut read. If you want someone to go for the jugular in wordsmithery to describe the resulting impact on the human psyche of repeated nights of cellar-dwellering, then this is the book. Winton is a living national treasure and this tome does nothing to wipe any of his sheen off!
An interview with Tim Winton = http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/interview-tim-winton-20131010-2v99d.html