Colin Johnson was born in 1938 and grew up in Narrogin in rural south west WA believing he was of Noongar descent. Wild Cat Falling, publicised as the first novel by an Aboriginal author, came out in 1965 and Johnson subsequently adopted the pen-name Mudrooroo. There have since been public arguments about Johnson’s parentage with, for example, Anita Heiss claiming that Johnson does not speak for Indigenous people and Kim Scott, himself of Noongar descent, saying that he does. To the extent that I, an old white guy, should have a point of view, it is that Johnson grew up in a Noongar community, experienced prejudice every day because of his skin colour, and in this book is clearly writing about the life that he and his fellows experienced in the 1950s.
If you google ‘Wild Cat Falling’ it is apparent that the book has for some time been a set text for school and/or university. This is reflected in the Introduction to the 1992 edition by Stephen Muecke, who writes:
“Mudrooroo was born into a society where assimilation was the government policy, and many of his people were surviving by forgetting their traditions as quickly as possible. This book emerged as a quite radical text, with a story which goes against this prevailing attitude, even before radicalism became fashionable in the late sixties and seventies …”
He then goes on to discuss the long and remarkably patronising Foreword by Mary Durack “which has been travelling with the novel ever since it was first published… What is the function of things like forewords, prefaces, introductions? … Forewords are written by prominent people to endorse the application of an unknown person to enter ‘society’. They are texts which smooth the passage of the unknown text.”
Durack met Johnson when “early in 1958, I was asked to find accommodation for a boy who was coming to a job in the city. I expected to see one of the youths we knew but he turned out to be a complete stranger with little of the familiar coloured boy’s willing-to-please manner.” The job offer fell through and eventually Johnson was offered a similar opportunity in Melbourne, where he discovered Buddhism and began to write. They stayed in touch and it was Durack who found a publisher for Wild Cat Falling, of which she writes: “The book should be read as a work of fiction by a young man who, although open to the degenerate influences of native camps and milk bar gangs, has been strong enough to set himself a positive goal requiring detachment and discipline.”
The book begins with ‘I’ – the narrator is not named – being released from Fremantle Prison and walking down the hill through Fremantle to the beach, still dressed in his prison-issue suit and tie. On the beach he approaches a young woman: “She lies stretched out in the sun and her skin is golden-brown. Swell doll. Long and slim with firm small breasts tightening the fabric of her swim suit. I realize that jail has not killed my sex urge.” He sits near her and takes off his “shoes, socks, coat, ludicrous tie and cheap shirt” and manages to strike up a conversation. He tells her he’s just out of prison, and a little about his life:
[At school] I learnt the art of survival against mob rule. Then I got copped for stealing and I was sent to a home where I was educated in the simple techniques of crime and learnt to survive the harshness of Christian charity. In the Noongar camps I learnt the art of being completely unexploitable and of sabotaging every make-believe effort to improve the native’s lot. I also learnt to take raw alcohol and raw sex. In jail I graduated in vice and overcame my last illusions about life. Now I know that hope and despair are equally absurd.
He describes the inevitability of ending up in jail when being with your mates is criminalised as ‘consorting’, and boasts a little. “‘I get the picture,’ she says. ‘From outcast native to big time bodgie. Success story.'” The girl, June, a psychology student, ignores his self pity and invites him to meet her the following day in the uni coffee lounge (UWA – there was only one university back then).
Over the next two or three days, he gets a room in town, borrows jeans, jumper and desert boots from someone who owes him a favour, hangs out with his bodgie mates, drinks and sleeps with a couple of the girls, and relives the series of crimes that got him into juvenile care and then prison. The book, a novella of barely 100 pages, would be interesting even if only for the descriptions of a long-gone sub-culture:
I look through the window of the lighted milk-bar and the familiar surroundings glow a ‘Welcome Home’ to me. This joint is the meeting place of the bodgie-widgie mob. Here they all are – the anti-socials, the misfits, the delinks, in a common defiance of the squares… I’m back and the gang crowds round – the boys in peacock-gaudy long coats and narrow pants, the girls casual in dowdy-dark jeans and sloppy sweaters.
He’s intelligent and well-read, an auto-didact; waiting for June he wanders through the uni bookstore and buys a copy of Waiting for Godot, and is able to fake his way through discussions of art and jazz with the boys accompanying June and at the subsequent party. Quotes from Godot highlight his own aimless waiting and the general absurdity of his situation.
The ending is dramatic, which I think points to a moral, that aimlessness is a pose which leads to disaster. “Even that whisper of hope I talked about was me. If I let up a minute on my mental discipline it creeps in again suggesting there might be something in life besides absurdity – even a hint of meaning.” Spoiler Alert. He joins up with mate, they steal a car and go back to his hometown to ‘do a job’. But they are heard, accosted by a policeman. ‘I’ fires off a shot with his stolen 22 and runs off into the bush. An old Aborigine, whom he knows by sight, lectures him, feeds him, sends him on his way. When the police come up on him, he gives in without a fight.
Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling, first pub. 1965. Edition pictured above A&R Imprint Classics, Sydney, 1992 (cover illustration by Elizabeth Durack)