Roasted

Peter Robb

Ten or so years ago I stayed with a friend who was a senior doctor in Queensland’s largest hospital, the Royal Brisbane. Most weekends he was on call to attend emergencies in remote inland areas by medical service plane or helicopter. The trips sometimes generated their own emergencies, since the helicopter pilot was a Vietnam veteran with a need for extreme situations and ready to create them when they didn’t come naturally. Other times, in a 24-hour absence he’d fly thousands of miles in a small plane to a point due west and back, to airlift a terminal case from some tiny near-desert settlement like the one where Janette Turner Hospital’s new novel is set. One Monday my friend came back from one such dot on the map with what remained of a man who seemed to have been beaten to death, or near it, by more than one person. The victim had been an outsider, someone who’d turned up in town a few months earlier and got a job in the local pub. The story of his accidental fall was corroborated by everyone in the town and made no sense at all of his injuries. The man died, I believe, and that was the end of it. After reading Oyster I remembered this and wondered whether any account of the man’s fate reached his friends or family, if he had any.

Oyster is about the strangers and drifters who turn up in such outback places and people them. Outer Maroo is delineated by real geographical co-ordinates and a mass of meteorological and mineralogical data, but doesn’t itself appear on the maps. This is not simply a question of its being fictional: its fictional inhabitants have gone to some lengths to erase their town from the records. One of the strangers in the novel is a woman called Miss Rover, a schoolteacher who’s been kicked to death and fed to a feral pig for voicing unmentionable truths, but who remains a central presence, a voice and a memory in what follows. Janette Turner Hospital’s premise of an outback town where such things might happen is all too likely, and you wonder why she works so hard at giving verisimilitude to an unlikely plot, piling on the information and following up her story with a bibliography of half a dozen titles.

Outer Maroo is an ordinary drought-stricken outback settlement, socially riven between the boozers and the fundamentalist wowsers, with a history of usurpation and massacre in its relations with the aboriginal Murris. What makes it special, apart from the preternaturally large looming of the Living Word Gospel Hall, is its hidden opal wealth. Four years before the week that constitutes the foreground of the story, a charismatic stranger has walked into town, clad in loose white garments and carrying a rifle. He has curls, a beard, intense and disturbing milky-blue eyes and a golden body. He talks like a religious huckster but the locals are mesmerised by the splendid opals he shows them. Soon they’re in business together, mining, polishing, selling. Oyster, the charlatan, runs his opal mine out of town as a millenarian religious commune, importing ingenuous young back-packers as labour. They become his prisoners and slaves. Their cards and letters home never leave town. Small planes fly in secretly from Singapore to remove the gems. The whole community is implicated, from the big graziers to the woman at the store. Everyone is making money, except the back-packers slaving underground, bearing the cult leader’s children and doing the things cultists do. In town and at the mine, those who know too much and those who want to leave, die. Outer Maroo writes itself off the map.

It’s too good and too bad to last, and three years later, for slightly obscure reasons, Oyster and his back-packers all die underground in an explosion and fire that the cult leader himself may have caused. A year later, a man from Melbourne and a woman from Boston arrive in Outer Maroo looking for their lost children. They meet up with Mercy and Jess, two of the three female witnesses at the centre of the story, and give the final prod that sets off a series of events which culminate in another, and definitive, apocalyptic fire.

In its telling, the story darts about and attitudinises and seems a lot more complex in the early pages than it turns out to be by the end: the outline takes some picking out through the dust kicked up by the author’s heels. Sorting out what happened when, and whose sensibilities it’s being refracted through, is heavy-going at first, but the bravura display of the early pages, however tiresome, is necessary to establish that Outer Maroo is a Place of the Mind, and ‘all of those who find the place are lost.’ Outer Maroo ‘is thick with coded messages, but the messages are legible only to those who can read the secretive earth’. This requires a tipping of the bush-hat to aboriginal culture, though the Murris have moved out for the duration of the story, apart from Ethel, who ‘sits there, cross-legged in the red dust at the edge of the bora rings, smiling to herself ... putting the scattered rocks back where they belong, filling gaps in the circles and centuries’. Oyster makes highly questionable use of the ancient aboriginal communings imputed to the token Ethel over her smoking gidgee leaves. It also entails a great deal of rumination on climate and geography, since ‘this disturbing story is sometimes fragmented and dispersed by shifting filaments of moisture in the upper air, and by variable atmospheric densities, and by rifts in time ... the facts may seem to float loose in a sequence of their own devising.’

The trouble with these ruminations is that they get in the way of the story. Early on, Jess the barmaid, whose CV is pure proletarian violence, is starting to make a record of events. She takes up her pen at the height of the climactic blaze that’s roasting everyone in town except for her and Ethel and an old opal miner. A tiny group, fate unknown behind the smoke, is making a dash for Brisbane and freedom in a stolen Land Rover. This is major drama. A change of wind and our threesome in town may be incinerated too. And what does the eager reader get? Jess’s untimely meditations on the art of fiction:

I write because what else is there to do? I write against time. I write against the whim of the fire. If the flames pass over us, I would like a record at least, to survive. This is a sort of primitive magic I’m engaged in, I recognise that, and I’m well aware that whatever I get written won’t last as long as the bora rings, but at least it will huddle safely under Cretaceous layers older than the first firestick ... perhaps my writing will be stranger than runes.

After further reflections on the nature of time and history (‘time does not run in a straight line and never has. It is a capillary system, mapped outwards from whichever pulse point the observer occupies’) – while the corrupted population of Outer Maroo is being devoured by the flames – Jess lays down her pen and leaps into the opal miner’s cot with him, ‘everything a blur of skin, legs, cock, cunt, breasts, buttocks ... we feast on each other.’ Her mind, however, is already on other things: ‘Beginnings astonish me, the way they can rise out of ashes; and as for histories of lovers, they’re outrageous. They’re like folk tales, they’re like fantasies, with the embarkation points of the two protagonists so often incongruous and the crossing of their paths so random; not to mention the question of their ruthlessness ...’ Jess, like Mercy and Miss Rover, is an incorrigible conceptualiser. Their habit of cerebration is sometimes what gets them into trouble, but mostly they just rabbit on and on for the sake of it, their thoughts indistinguishable from the author’s. You soon feel that cerebration is the point, and the whole rather silly affair of the cult and the opals and the tyranny of silence and the dozens of people burnt alive is a pretext for a string of aperçus. Pulled between the story’s violence and its obtrusive recording consciousnesses, Oyster wants to have it both ways. It reads like an awful lot of other novels, the award-winning kind, of the last decade or so. Joan Didion floats into view – her manner, if not her anorexic vigour.

Roasted people are a substantial novelty in Turner Hospital’s writing. Ouster bears the marks of a radical discontent, a resolve to break out of the writers’ workshop ghetto, to cut loose from sensitive souls with time on their hands, to lift off through the realm of the minor award into the mainstream and maybe a major motion picture. In a big, gutsyway Turner Hospital has struck out beyond the black stump for an international readership and taken on the brutal man’s world of the Australian outback, its open spaces and closed minds – all colour, movement and apocalyptic fire. With its sinister stranger in town, Oyster is a throwback to the American Western. The scene is very filmset Western, too: the single dusty street with the store, the pub and the Gospel Hall facing of and everyone always on hand for the key showdowns.

The cast makes sense as action movie material. There’s nothing open-ended about these neatly tied bundles of attributes. Old fossicker Major Miner never appears without a mention of the fall of Singapore, his defining experience, or concerned parent Nick without a reference to growing up Greek in Australia, which is his. The grazier’s wife, Dorothy Godwin, is a kleptomaniac, the burnt-out pastor, Charles Given, has lost his faith and his books, the walk-on Pete Burnett is basically a decent bloke, the stepmother Sarah an American Jewish intellectual, the barmaid Jess silent and warmly sturdy. Oyster of the yeasty groin and fluttering white garments is a cipher. Peripheral figures utter a kind of computer-generated demotic and nobody grows or changes or surprises, not even crucial Mercy Given, who’s really a double act with her mentor, the ‘transferred’ schoolteacher Susannah Rover. The late Miss Rover exists mainly in Mercy’s memory, where her spunky truth-telling seems so arch and knowing that you come to understand why the inhabitants of Outer Maroo did away with her.

Oyster is more about the place than the people, and while a silly story is a silly story, the determination to get down something of the look and the feel of Outer Maroo is more than a cinematic come-on. The anxiety lurking behind the showing-off and the millennial flourishes in this book has been around ever since Australian writing started taking itself seriously, at least since Patrick White announced his intention to ‘people the great Australian emptiness’ with his works. The writer’s fear seems to be that in and for themselves these places and these people lack interest – that only an ungainly effort of the will can turn this matter into respectable fiction. Whence the great kitsch structures of White’s novels of the Fifties and early Sixties, those parts of his books that now seem so dated and inessential, the dragging-in of religion and spirituality to give ‘meaning’. Something similar happened with the painters, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, plonking allegorical figures in their Australian bush, inventing mythologies; but they managed it more lightly and more wittily than the writers. Turner Hospital’s own anxieties in Oyster seem to lie closer to the surface. Outer Maroo is as assertively ‘real’ as its R.M. Williams boots, its Fourex beer and Toyota 4WDS. What it might be like to live there, however, with the drought, the heat and the isolation, but without cult deaths, dirty money and imported hysteria, is an order of reality quite missing here.

Turner Hospital is the author of forty-odd short, sharp and shapely stories, a lot of them set in the unpromising terrain of the anglophone university network of conferences, visiting professorships, and writer’s residencies, especially in Canada, where she now lives for much of the time. They work the vein of memory, displacement, nostalgia, jolted by brief encounters and tiny unsettling experiences. Many adhere closely to the known facts of Turner Hospital’s career. The voice in these stories is assured, at home in its limited milieu of faculty angst, and they have the great strength of achieving their effects in a brief compass. Reading them after Oyster makes you thankful that Jane Austen, hitting her limits in Mansfield Park, never decided to go for broke with an epic of slavery, sex and religion on Sir Thomas’s Antiguan plantations.