Tim Winton’s new novel is a love story that comes out of a background of isolation and accident. Georgie Jutland, a fortyish ex-nurse from a good family, has got herself into a three-year relationship with Jim Buckridge, a widowed, well-off lobster fisherman with two young sons. She is living with them in conditions of domestic comfort but emotional torpor in White Point, a fishing community north of Perth. A lot of things in both adults’ pasts lie undiscussed. Jim has not really come to terms with being the son of a domineering, dynastic father, and with losing his wife through cancer; Georgie has a history of relationships with bad boys and of disappointing her parents and siblings. In the early hours one morning, after a night spent surfing the Net and drinking vodka, Georgie picks out a lone vessel in the darkness of the bay. It is there, she realises, to poach fish before the licensed fishing crews set out. Georgie goes down to the ocean and finds the boat’s trailer, with a dog chained to it. She releases the dog and goes for a swim with it. She does not report the boat.
Its occupant is Luther Fox, a local loner with a tragedy in his recent past. A little over a year before, Darkie, his feckless, delightful brother, his beautiful sister-in-law, Sal, and their two young children were killed in an accident in their truck, an accident that Fox survived. Darkie and Sal were musicians, and were leaving for a gig. Darkie had been drinking and was driving fast and showing off: the truck rolled over in his own drive. Fox had been intensely close to his carefree family, maybe too much so – his fascination with Sal and his devotion to the children were more than straightforward familial responses. Since their deaths he has lived on in their family house, surrounded by their clothes, tapes, instruments, their smells. He has coped by becoming a ‘secret’, a non-person, burning his papers, making a living from selling his poached fish to restaurants.
Georgie meets Fox, by accident, some weeks after her sighting of his boat: her truck has broken down on the road to Perth and he picks her up. Georgie is bolting from Jim, Fox is transporting ‘a shitload of illegal seafood’. The intense sexual encounters that ensue are cut short when Fox is turned on by locals, including Jim, who are angered by the unlicensed fishing: his dog is killed, his truck destroyed, and he leaves, furtively and fast. He heads far north for Coronation Gulf, a ‘secret’ archipelago Georgie has told him about, and which he finds in an atlas ‘right at the top near the Timor Sea’. Fox has never been out of Western Australia and leaving now is a huge endeavour, physically and emotionally. When he finally reaches his destination, a remote, largely uninhabited, rocky, unforgiving place, he has no map or means of communication, and is compelled to fend and forage for himself, soon truly in extremis.
He sends Georgie an envelope postmarked from Broome containing ‘the pink dirt of the pindan country’ as a clue to his whereabouts. Eventually, she sets out to find him, and travels, with Jim, to Broome to hire a pilot and plane, and search for Fox in the gullies and coves of Coronation Gulf. The story is brought to its resolution by a plane crash. For readers familiar with Winton’s fiction this will not come as a great surprise. He is obsessed with questions of luck, and accidents, particularly car crashes, occur with great frequency in his novels (there is another one in the subplot of Dirt Music). The whole Fox family has had ‘shit luck from go to whoa’ and join a cast of the luckless in Winton’s work, but there are particular echoes of Sam Pickles and his family in the magnificent Cloudstreet (1991). Sam’s father had termed luck’s malign workings ‘the shifty shadow of God’, and Sam knows to stay in bed on a day when he feels it hovering. Whether you can beat your luck or just have to live with it is a constant preoccupation in Cloudstreet. The question is still being asked in Dirt Music. Georgie initially tries to rationalise her fling with Fox as ‘an interlude, a simple accident you had to leave behind’. But in Winton’s fiction, the emotions that accidents stir up are not easy to discard. Chance is given meaning. When Jim was married, it turns out, he had a fling with Sally Fox, which he has come to connect with the illness and death of Debbie, his wife. He decides to help Georgie find Luther Fox as a way to atone for his guilt. And it is Georgie’s brutal question to Jim – ‘You didn’t feel unlucky when your wife got cancer?’ – that impels him to uncover the connections between things in his past and present, to see how amends can be made.
The preoccupation with luck is also, inevitably, a preoccupation with the issue of free will. Winton uses the theory of the ‘shifty shadow’ to allow for a universe which works in ways that are obscure and unfair. But the possibility that man may try to make himself immune to God is allowed into the novels with equal potency. One of his early novels, In the Winter Dark (1988), dwells chillingly on what happens when it is too late to atone. A straightforward Christian answer rarely gets a free run in his work, particularly in the early books, which encourage a quasi-pantheistic belief in the ubiquitous presence of God and love. This is still evident in Dirt Music. As he struggles to survive in Coronation Gulf, Fox thinks of all the things he had wanted to tell Georgie. Romantic poetry might have helped them come to an understanding, he believes, because of the way those poets ‘articulate your own instinctive feeling that there is some kind of spirit that rolls through all things, some fearsome memory in stones, in wind, in the lives of birds’.
Dirt Music marks a significant development in Winton’s writing because of its determined emphasis on penance and atonement and how they may be flawed or insufficient as concepts, and on love’s capacity to bring about purgation and renewal. From Winton’s first novel, An Open Swimmer (1982), onwards, solitary journeying or isolated hardship has often been seen as a rite of passage and associated with the acquisition of understanding. Luther Fox’s retreat to Coronation Gulf is an extreme manifestation of this. The difficulties he experiences enable him to understand crucial things about the way he loved his family, and his relationship with Georgie. Ultimately, the novel endorses emotions and values that can be associated with Christianity – love which is giving is seen as having a particular worth – but it is just as significant that these values do not have to be understood as exclusively Christian. Georgie is a nurse – that, literally and metaphorically, matters a lot, too.
The novel’s title is tied to Fox’s past. Dirt music was what Darkie and Sal – and sometimes Fox – made up and played together. Fox stumbles to define it to Georgie in one of their early, rambling, conversations:
Anythin you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.
As in . . . soil?
Yeah. Land. Home. Country.
You can’t mean country and western?
Over time, and separated from one another, Fox and Georgie each come to an appreciation of the way music informs their sense of the people they love. Fox’s toughest moment of realisation takes place in his retreat, after a fishing accident; he remembers the way Darkie and Sal treated him, the years of casual emotional exploitation. At the heart of his memory of them lies their music:
Didn’t you tell yourself three thousand nights of your life that you forgave them the rest because of what they could do? Because of the music? But that only held when you believed in them as creatures inspired, as sources of the music . . . The music wasn’t in them. They barely felt it. They just liked playing . . . There it is, he tells himself in a cloud of pain, you’ve thought it . . . Why he’s lived this past year in homage to these people even after their death. Why? he asks himself in the falling dark. Because you loved them. You did it out of love. And owning up to what they were really like won’t change that.
Winton’s fiction has long been testing out the idea that characters who are enlightened, or who seek understanding, use forms of art, especially poetry, to help them. His allusions to poetry, and the way in which his characters appropriate it, suggest that he is interested in questions of intentionality, in the capacity of art to impart a determined message and the endless capacity of readers to reinterpret texts. In Dirt Music, characters still use poetry as a way of understanding their world, but its limits are now apparent. Early on in the novel, Georgie quizzes Fox on what he’s been reading (‘Keats obviously’), but, typically, he won’t be drawn. Later, though, on his way north, a couple give him a lift and he exchanges quotes with the woman, Bess. She is dying of bowel cancer, and recites verses by Anne Sexton to cope with the pain. It is a bizarre scene. But her husband, Horrie, explains that, more than poetry, ‘she wants big music, Lu. And north is where you get it. The Kimberleys, mate. Big weather, big fish, big distances – larger’n life.’ It is music that takes you further. In Coronation Gulf, at almost his lowest physical ebb, Fox finds himself strumming music on a fishing line from his reel. For him, the moment is exhilarating and terrifying.
Georgie uses music to bring her pursuit of Fox to an end. After his departure, she had visited his house obsessively, listening to him singing on old family tapes. In the final stages of her desperate search, she leaves a blues compilation-tape Fox had made in one of the camps he has used; it features ‘the whining bottle-neck style she’d come to love. The more she listened the more she was convinced that this was as close as an instrument got to the human voice . . . Would he see it? Would he understand?’ She gives his own music back to him as a way of telling him that he can recover from his past, and that she can help him. Like Fox’s envelope filled with dirt, her tape is a message without words. Music’s wordlessness allies it with the unspoken, the felt:
It had something to do with music . . . So many other men were mostly calculation . . . But Lu was pure, hot feeling . . . And in that moment of need or mischief she’d broken into something. You could see the relief in him as he cried, even before they’d made love. Music wants to be heard. Feeling wants to be felt. He’d always wanted to be found, even if he didn’t know it.
Dirt Music affirms the value of feeling, but it is a profoundly unsentimental book.
Most of Winton’s earlier novels have explored themes of loss, love, and the way the past insists on informing the present. Dirt Music is a more optimistic book than his last novel, The Riders (1995); it suggests that men and women have the capacity to address their pasts and to accommodate them in their futures. The tendency to structural sprawl in his writing that has become more marked over the last decade (with the exception of the self-contained novella Blueback, 1997) is probably deliberate. Winton writes intense and hugely absorbing novels that make you really want to know what is going to happen next – but he is aiming, too, to make reading them a moral experience.