Is Tim Winton our greatest living author? With his latest print offering a case could be mounted for this accolade. His Australianness makes him unique, particularly when he comes up with such use of the vernacular, in such crude poetic glory, as in ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’. It’s up there with ‘The Riders’ and ‘Dirt Music’; its Jackson (Jaxie) Clackton with Scully, Luther Fox and the denizens of ‘Cloudstreet’. This outback centred stunner will linger long in the synapses. After the relative disappointment of ‘Eyrie’ and his memoirs, for this fan, our GLA is back on song.
Just as we can celebrate this, we can also re-celebrate ‘Breath’ anew. His 2008 publication sang of the sea, the coastal littoral and some of the mystique of surfing culture. Simon Baker’s directoral debut for the big screen has bought this Winton work back to life – and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
The movie takes us to a surfers’ paradise, but as far removed from sun blasted beaches as it is possible to be. Set around Denmark, on the south coast of WA, I do not think the sun settled once, for the duration of the film, on the bleached hair and kombis of this part of the surfing landscape. There, like my own island, could be considered as part of the Australian sport’s new frontier. Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are in their early teens, just putting their toe in the water as far as this recreational outlet is concerned. Along comes former surfing god Sando, Baker himself, as their mentor – and he’s full of it. He’s a bit of a dick, actually, as he challenges the lads’ manhood, virtually forcing them to take on monster breaks that would make any parent shake in their boots at – if they knew. Loonie, as his name suggests, is up for anything and knows no fear, but the far more reticent Pikelet isn’t so swayed by Sando’s reputation (just who did leave those old surfing mags lying around?) and bullshit.
Sando has a missus. Eva, a former skiing champ, is recovering from a possible career ending accident on the piste. She is a distant and dissatisfied figure, clearly not all that enamoured of Sando’s big-noting to the boys. When he pisses off to Indonesia, the susceptible Loonie in tow, Eva seduces the at-a-loss Pikelet. He starts to see the world, as a result, from a different perspective and begins to become the man, we suspect, neither Loonie or Sando could ever be. Although the sex aspect caused some minor gnashing of teeth, it was tastefully handled by Baker.
The brooding coastline, capable of producing maelstroms with little notice; the surfing under grey and always foreboding skies, were a masterful, evocative aspect of both the book and film. At times, though, the lack of acting chops by the two young thesps – they were chosen for their looks and prowess in the swell – is on show. As well, the movie almost outlasted my bladder – there could have been a bit more judicious editing. But it is a worthy match to the great man’s own words – and as a bonus the writer himself is the adult narrating voice of Pikelet.
And his words don’t get much better than in ‘The Shepherds Hut’. With young Clackton he has gifted us a character for the ages. With verbal brilliance the author takes us on a journey with Jaxie to the great beyond of nothingness that outwardly are the West Australian deserts. Inwardly, Winton’s wordsmithery makes them come alive, giving up their primal burnished beauty, becoming the exact opposite.
Winton’s hard done by, but bush savvy, hero flees out into the scrub when he discovers his violent excuse for a piece of shit father squashed and lifeless under the Hilux. He calls his obnoxious old man Captain Wankbag and has had a lifetime of being belted mercilessly by him. It’s a fact well known around the blowfly blown community that’s the pair’s home. His mother, similarly pummelled by the vicious Sid, has, perhaps thankfully, succumbed to cancer a while back. The old bastard is the town’s provider of meat – to call him a butcher would denigrate that profession – and is therefore tolerated despite his unpalatable ways. Jaxie knows a suspicious eye will be placed on his culpability for what occurred to the scumbag beneath the ute, so off he goes. Besides, there is a solitary shining light in his life and she lives in another blighted collection of buildings on up the road a fair distance. He knows he must avoid civilisation at all costs, but he’s woefully under-prepared for a bush bash, although he is at peace with the lie of the land and that must count for something.
Even so, he’s on his last legs when he encounters the wonderfully monikered Fintan MacGillis. He’s a mystery, seemingly biblically banished to the arid wastelands to largely live off the land, as barren as it is. He is slowly addling-up through loneliness. But such is their collective predicament, when Jaxie comes across him, they very soon discover they are in dire need of what the other can give. The worn, fat ex-priest has a hut – and that’s salvation for the boy. But can the unlikely duo cope with such a harsh, unforgiving environment and survive, given its about to give up a few secrets?
Like the best of Winton ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ compels; it mesmerises in a way akin to the mirages on the salt lake that is close company to the shanty the two protagonists share in wary proximity. It’s a truly beautiful work, even in its brutality and brutal language. It tells us there has to be hope – there just has to be.
The author’s FaceBook page = https://www.facebook.com/timwintonauthor/
Trailer for ‘Breath’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOGrFNaTaao