|Jan/Feb 2002 Book Reviews|
Picador, Pan Macmillan (December 2001) 465 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36323 9
No wonder Western Australians think their State should become independent from the rest. If they are like the people in this book, they are obviously a bunch of anarchists who like to take the law into their own hands. Or maybe I live a sheltered life across here in Sydney. I've certainly not met a community like the one Tim Winton describes. The inhabitants of White Point are rough, tough Aussie blokes and Sheilas with a vengeance. Maybe, though, Georgie Jutland--divorced, drifting, alcoholic, tough woman that she is--just mixes with that sort of company.
To my mind, the sad thing is that Winton is a writer whose skill at drawing Australian landscapes is superb, but this skill seems wasted on the bunch of course-mouthed, disillusioned characters who people this story. I found it hard to listen to them and hard to like them, but perhaps that's just my finicky taste. The book, after all, is called Dirt Music, which suggests a combination of the two. And there is music and sensitivity amongst all the ugly unpleasantness and tension, especially when Fox (another drifter, but a musician) goes quietly "troppo"* in the isolation of a Far North West Australian island.
To tell the story briefly...
Georgie lives with Jim Buckridge, a fisherman with a past she knows almost nothing about. Jim is a man who is treated with fearful respect by the White Point community. The romance has faded from their relationship and Georgie is contemplating moving on when she meets and sleeps with Luther Fox.
Fox has major sorrows of his own, which are eventually movingly revealed, but he fears Jim Buckridge's revenge, especially when his van is shot-up and his dog is deliberately killed.
So, Fox takes off for the tropical islands and seas in the far North of Western Australia and, as he feared would happen, is pursued by Jim, who takes Georgie along with him. What eventuates is unexpected, exciting and, in the end, highly unlikely. However, to backtrack a little, on the way North, Fox gets lifts with an assortment of "characters": I use quotes because Winton teeters on the edge of caricature here. A one-legged surfer with a grudge called Rusty, a hypodermic constantly stuck in his thigh, on a manic, perpetual high from a cocktail of drugs, is a bit much. And an elderly ex-school-teacher, trying to run away from incurable bowel cancer, obsessive about Wordsworth, "Bill" Blake, Hardy, Anne Sexton and James Dicken, also pushes the bounds of belief a bit far. I am sure there must be people like these travelling that road, but aren't there just a few normal people too?
O.K., so this is fiction, this is entertainment, and it is well written and it will probably sell a lot of copies and make Winton a lot of money. What more do I want?
I want to swim in Winton's warm, rich seas without being jarred by "arse" or "fuck." I want more of his sun-drenched, luminous island dreaming. I want, perhaps, the moon!
Winton is not, as Robert Taylor of the West Australian claims, "the most important Australian writer of his generation." How would one judge that? And on what criteria? But he is a very good writer, and he is an Australian writer who can capture the unique character of the land he loves in his words. I wish he would just do that. And I hope that non-Australians reading this book keep in mind that the lawlessness and the characters he describes are fictitious.
At least I think they are, but I haven't been to Western Australia for years.
* "Going troppo" is an Australian phrase used to describes a state of mental disturbance brought on by living for too long in the tropics.