Tim Winton’s new novel is full of shit. There are references to it every three or four pages, almost: characters are forever feeling like it, or smelling of it, or coming out with it, or at least kicking it off their boots. Winton’s hero, a builder called Fred Scully, is put through some harrowing emotional paces, and as often as not they affect him primarily in the bowels, which thereby become a potent index of spiritual well-being. The well-behaved, well-regulated bowel belongs to his era of stability and marital contentment: an era that predates this novel but is alluded to nostalgically as a time when Scully was ‘a languid outhouse merchant ... who liked to plot and read and reminisce with his trousers down’. And when his spiral downwards into Hell begins – Scully arrives at Shannon Airport to collect his wife and daughter from their Australian flight, but discovers that only the daughter is there to meet him – the first symptoms manifest themselves, naturally enough, in the lavatory, where Scully takes immediate refuge and soon finds himself ‘shitting battery acid’.
Scully and his family are, like Winton, Australian, but roughly the first quarter of the novel takes place in Ireland. Here, on a whim, but with the full encouragement of his wife Jennifer, Scully has purchased a dilapidated cottage which he resolves to transform into the family home. Jennifer and their daughter Billie return to Australia to sell their existing property and make ready to join him: they are supposed to arrive just before Christmas. Scully busies himself, meanwhile, with clearing the cottage, burning the previous owner’s effects, putting up shelves, getting rid of damp; and, most important of all, installing a toilet. There comes a point (on a morning when ‘the mist hung on him like a bedwetter’s blanket’) when he realises that ‘his days of coming out behind the barn with a spade and a roll of floral paper were at an end.’
In Winton’s hands, this picture of a burly Australian hacking away at earth which is like ‘reinforced concrete’ so that his wife and daughter will be able to minister in comfort to the most fundamental of human needs becomes an intensely touching and romantic image. When Scully does construct the toilet, he puts it in an old Telefon booth inside the barn, as if to underscore the novel’s insistence that shitting is, among other things, another way for people to communicate their feelings for one another. And indeed, when he returns to the cottage with Billie – who has been struck dumb by the trauma of separation from her mother – he attempts to make the toilet their first talking-point, trying to coax her into speech by enthusing gauchely over his own ingenuity (‘Great dunny, what d’you reckon?’).
This conflation of emotional expressiveness with a robust and candid feeling for the physical world has always been one of Winton’s greatest strengths as a writer, and in The Riders it reaches something of an apogee. To say that it is a very basic book is to pay it the highest compliment. It asks big, simple questions about value: questions which a more bookish, or genteelly ironic, or cerebral writer than Winton would merely tiptoe around. About halfway through the book, looking at Billie as she walks by the edge of a harbour on a Greek island, Scully realises that she is ‘all his life amounted to, apart from a couple of good buildings and some memories’. The next question he asks himself is ‘Wasn’t she enough?’ but there is no ready answer: ‘The sea butted its head against the wall and he watched, wondering.’ The point of the entire narrative, in fact, is to force this question again and again; to ask what a life amounts to, and to keep both Scully’s and the reader’s head butting against that wall.
For this purpose, Winton has devised a plot of primal simplicity, to which eighty-odd pages of strenuous dunny-digging seem an entirely appropriate prelude. Jennifer, Scully’s wife, never turns up at Shannon Airport; his daughter is unable to say what happened to her or where she has gone; and so begins a long, frantic trek across Europe, starting in Greece, winding up through Italy and towards Paris, and leading finally to a houseboat in Amsterdam. Scully’s only clues are airline timetables, his own memories and the various gnomic hints dropped by Jennifer’s friends as he meets them on the way. Improvised journeys and chance encounters dominate the narrative, and in form the novel slowly gravitates towards a profoundly non-comic picaresque.
Some readers might feel that Jennifer has been thinly realised: we learn almost nothing about her, except that she has beautiful legs and what seem to be rather unrealistic artistic aspirations. But it seems less a failure of imaginative energy than a strategic decision, very closely bound up with the meaning of the book. In a novel that concerns itself so directly with faith, trust and the assumptions we make (two of these words, not by coincidence, have a strong religious connotation) it’s important that the reader takes Jennifer for granted just as Scully does. Even though we never hear her in conversation with Scully, or see them making love, his relationships with other characters seem vaporous and insubstantial by comparison. In the Irish section, for instance, his cheerful, affectionate sparring with Pete the Postman may seem more real, more fully imagined within the terms of naturalistic fiction, but there’s also the sense that it is merely a gloss on the surface of deeper currents of feeling. This is brought home by an affecting moment when Pete is driving the miserable Scully and his mute daughter to the airport, to embark on stage one of their hopeless quest: pulling over to the side of the road, he ties a handkerchief around a branch of the local ‘wishing-tree’. ‘Don’t say a word, Scully,’ he admonishes: ‘words’ being the stuff of banter, friendship, time-passing, while the wordlessness – within the parameters of this novel – of Scully’s relationship with Jennifer is an index of its overriding value. Similarly, in the novel’s one desperate, fumbling sex scene, with a woman called Irma who dogs Scully on his European journey, the lovemaking is devalued by the specificity with which Winton describes it, while Scully’s memories of sex with Jennifer retain an aura of very unspecific perfection. In this way, invisible but omnipresent, she performs a God-like function in the book: she provides something for both Scully and the reader to believe in.
Instead of making Jennifer credible in the way that Irma, for example, is thoroughly and solidly credible, Winton gives her a sort of commanding absence, making the unfashionable point that complete faith in another human being is as irrational, as hard to sustain but at the same time as anchoring, as belief in God. The analogy is made explicit when Pete tells Scully that he is lucky to have a child. Scully agrees, ‘with his whole being’ (and it’s hard to think of many modern writers who could use that phrase without embarrassment), then adds: ‘I’m so bloody grateful for it. To Jennifer, to God.’ And so this novel, which is distinguished by its forceful engagement with the physical world, is also informed by a deep sense of the numinous; by a feeling which is probably best described – although Winton never spells it out in these terms – as religious.
This tension has always been present in Winton’s work, although The Riders allows it a more extreme expression than before. In his earlier novels it seemed somehow linked to the Australian landscape: a landscape which can inspire tremendous awe but at the same time makes enormous physical demands on the people who are trying to live in it. The isolated valley in Winton’s thriller, In the Winter Dark, home to some nameless and savage predator, brought hardship and wonder to its inhabitants in equal measure. (As the narrator put it: ‘You get that big church feeling up in the forest.’) In an even earlier book, Shallows, the connection between God and the natural world is spelled out in an exchange between a fisherman and a priest. ‘How’s the fish?’ the priest asks, as he passes by the harbour, and receives the laconic answer: ‘Well’s can be expected. They’re there.’ Pointedly, the fisherman then asks: ‘How’s God, then?’ ‘Well’s can be expected,’ says the priest. ‘He’s there too.’
This example could have come from any of Winton’s earlier novels: it typifies the surprising way in which his religious feeling and his sharp instinct for Australian speech rhythms go hand in hand. But maybe this isn’t so surprising: perhaps his modern, pantheistic form of Christianity, which sees the world as a code, a cryptic echo of something richer and vastly more complex, has something in common with the deadpan irony of the Australian male, where an absolute minimum of words (or even sounds) can gesture towards huge acreages of implied meaning. The culture of mateship is forced to the sidelines in The Riders, and one of the factors which increases the poignancy of Scully’s situation is our sense that he has cut himself off not only from the landscapes but also the social contexts that were once familiar to him. There is a parallel sense that Winton himself is adrift, at times, in this pan-European setting, reduced to a kind of stage Oirish (in the dialogues with Pete the Post) or Inspector Clouseau-style French (in the conversations with Jennifer’s friend Marianne, who comes out with things like: ‘You were like a stone on ’er, Scully, an anchor on ’er neck’). But he still conveys very powerfully the Australian’s national inferiority complex, and the accompanying suspicion that Scully is not only out of his cultural depth, but stumbling his way around a maze of feminine signals and ciphers for which his own gender hasn’t prepared him.
The novel’s two polarised elements – its grungy physicality and its pervasive, insistent visionary dimension – are brought together most audaciously in the series of apparitions which come to Scully in the night and give the book its title. He first sees the riders in Ireland, in the grounds of the ruined castle which lies adjacent to his cottage. It is three o’clock in the morning and, having glimpsed lights from his kitchen window, he goes out to investigate:
With arms held high, he stumbled down onto the muddy grass into the strong smell of horses. Closer there was a sourer scent, the stink of unwashed men. At the sudden splash of piss from a horse in the rear, Scully grunted in fright but not a man stirred. Their torches crackled, flames rigid in the still air, giving off the reek of pitch ... And how they craned their necks, these riders. It was as though at any moment some great and terrible event would explode upon them, as if something, someone up there could set them in motion. The sky was a comfortless blanket on them. The ground was mired and trodden. Shit stood in vaporous cakes between hoofs. The castle keep rose as a cudgel before them. He felt himself craning, waiting, almost failing to breathe.
At the end of the book, the reappearance of this vision provides a measure of the emotional distance Scully has travelled by the time he returns from Europe: he realises that it is not his role to stand ‘unseen, patient, dogged faithful in all weathers and all worlds, waiting for something promised’. As an image of puzzled, hurt, battle-weary masculinity, the riders could easily have been ludicrous and self-pitying had Winton not proved himself capable, by this stage, of negotiating with such assurance between the physical and spiritual planes of his narrative. As it is, the image takes on a hard-won grandeur which reflects back on the book as a whole. For all but the most sceptical readers, it should be one of many moments in this bruising, exultant novel which gives you that big church feeling.