Tim Winton (1960 – ) is a presence in Western Australia, Fremantle’s public intellectual, replacing Ben Elton. We have fairly low standards for public intellectuals over here. The public intellectual of the other end of town is a sharemarket miner, one of whose floats came good, and not just for those in at the beginning.
The boyishly personable Winton is not my favourite author but I feel constrained to keep up with what he is writing, a task made easier by much of his output being on audiobooks and by a lightness of style. His subject matter, other than in Cloudstreet (1991), is almost invariably adolescent boys in seaside towns in WA’s south west, ie. himself. Cloudstreet, as I remember it (not fondly!) is an evocation of suburban Perth in the 1960s, an excuse to bring up again the Rivervale mass murderer, Eric Cooke, himself just an extreme example of the Rivervale men I knew, first or second-hand, but for Winton a plot device, a base to touch. Rivervale, my home, slowly gentrifying now due to its closeness to the city, but for many years row upon row of fibro and galvanised iron State Housing houses on desolate sandy quarter acre blocks, which I have always imagined as the setting for Cloudstreet though apparently it is not.
The Turning (2004) is a novel in fragments. Wikipedia uses the expression “This multi award-winning collection of short stories” but I don’t agree. My reading is that this is one man’s story over time, focusing on his adolescence in ‘Angelus’ (Albany, Winton’s boyhood home town and a substantial regional port city in WA’s south) through a series of interconnected vignettes. Which of course implies that the stories in which the man/boy – Vic Lang – doesn’t appear, still serve to illustrate aspects of Vic’s story, of his, and Winton’s, generation.
So, the opening story, Big World, is of two boys from Vic’s high school class who head off after graduation, heading north in their Kombi, picking up a girl along the way, growing apart. An essay on boyhood friendship and that Australian staple, mateship.
Right now, standing with Biggie on the salt lake at sunset, each of us still in our southern-boy uniform of boots, jeans and flannel shirt, I don’t care what happens beyond this moment. In the hot northern dusk, the world suddenly gets big around us, so big we just give in and watch.
I said above that Angelus, the setting for many of the stories, is Albany, a port city on the south coast with a history of whaling. This is clearly the case, despite many reviews referring to it as a small fishing town, though I do sometimes get the impression Winton has included aspects of smaller towns on the west coast, Augusta for instance. White Point where Vic’s family camp on holidays is a real place, a remote beach south of Augusta. In passing, Augusta is the setting for much of Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans and Albany, ‘King George Town’, is both Kim Scott’s boyhood hometown and the setting for That Deadman Dance.
And speaking of Kim Scott, the defect in this book, and in Winton’s work generally is the way he almost completely ignores the substantial Noongar presence in the south west. The “Aboriginal kids from St Joe’s”, however favourably portrayed, who come up in a couple of these stories, are at best tokens. I can’t imagine Winton the environmental warrior is racist, or even ignorant, so can only imagine he has taken the conscious decision that Indigenous stories are not his to tell -which I would applaud – but that is no excuse for implying that Whites and Noongars do not interact.
Over the course of the stories we look at Vic’s relationships with girls, with his wife and with his father. We see Angelus’ underbelly of drugs, crime and corruption, Vic’s policeman father eventually disappearing, a cleanskin forced out and into hiding, discovered years later in a tiny remote community of old men in the Goldfields north of Kalgoorlie. We see also, over a number of stories, the Leapers, Frank a football star, Max an abusive husband, who come together after years of estrangement in a Winton-esque high moment of big wave surfing and sharks.
They bellied down the long, smooth face and beneath them the reef flickered all motley and dappled, weaves of current and colour and darting things that were buried with Max and him as a thundering cloud of whitewater overtook them. The blasts of water ripped through Leaper’s hair and pounded in his ears. The reef was all over him but he held fast to his brother, hugging him to the board, hanging on with all the strength left in his fingers, for as long as he could, and for longer than he should have.
I like The Turning. I think Winton has had a shot at writing something a bit different and it has largely worked. The movie too had good reviews and I must make an effort to see it.
Tim Winton, The Turning, Picador, Sydney, 2004 (interestingly, the cover of the copy I have – which was given to me by my sister in law, M to review two or three years ago – has a different, blacker cloud formation in the background, and others have a beach campfire instead of a car). Audio version, Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower and Caroline Lee