Feature Author 2019: David Ireland
The Glass Canoe (1976) was David Ireland’s fifth novel and his second (of three) Miles Franklin Award winners. It’s a blokey book, everything I’ve read of Ireland’s including, as I’ve already argued A Woman of the Future (1979), is blokey, reflecting his age, his generation. The Glass Canoe is set, although it’s nowhere stated, in the 1950s, in the years after the War when Ireland was in his young manhood, but before the white Australian working class was swamped by waves of southern European immigration.
The writing however is of its time, post-60s and the sexual revolution, one of the reasons that Ireland’s age – he was born in 1927 (here) – sometimes comes as a surprise. If he were younger this would almost be ‘grunge’.
This is the story of a young man, Lance, the Meat Man, ‘Meat’, in Sydney’s west, out Parramatta way, he calls it ‘the Mead’ – Westmead? (map) – working as a groundsman at the local golf club, a serious drinker at his local, the Southern Cross, and secretly recording the stories of his ‘tribe’, the men who gather daily to drink in this dilapidated, yellow-tiled, suburban blood house.
On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.
The Mead was our territory, the Southern Cross our waterhole. The next tribe west drank at the Bull, and on the other side the nearest tribe holed up at the Exchange. While your tribe’s waterhole flowed, you never went walkabout to another tribe’s waterhole.
Unless there was trouble, some little matter to be settled.
The novel consists of short chapters of half, one or two pages each, sketches from his life, his past, his work, his darling, sketches of his mates and their lives as members of the tribe. A style reminiscent in both the writing and the layout (as I remember them) of Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971).
In many ways this is what the Australian Legend had come to – from bushmen cutting out their cheques at the nearest pub in the 1890s after months shearing or droving, to working men in the endless suburbs gathering daily to drink and fight. There are women, as there always are, to serve the beer, to wait at home and cook the dinner and shout at the kids, to have down the creek or up against a wall or in the back of the car, there are even some, as big and tough as the men, drinking at the bar, and then there is his darling, petite, beautiful, endlessly pleased to see him.
To the extent there is a plot it concerns Sibley, the boy who chose to escape from the Mead but who returns to study drinkers, whom he sees as outside of and beneath society, for his PhD; Meat’s ongoing and probably failing relationship with his darling; and the decline and eventual redevelopment of the Southern Cross, foreshadowing the decline of the Tribe.
Ireland uses Meat, who was good at school but chose not to do anything with it and instead muses whimsically about how things work, from record players to the universe, without ever wishing to know, to tell the story, but uses another character, Alky Jack whom Meat admires, to present Ireland’s own libertarian views.
‘The population must be kept passive,’ I heard him say. ‘This is done by myth. These myths are put in your cornflakes every morning …’
‘… that it’s a free society … human rights are respected … we’re all equal, the elite is generous and just and the best people to be in charge … that our bosses work like buggery and the mob is lazy, they’re honest and we’re dishonest, they’re superior and we’re inferior. That’s the myth.’
The Glass Canoe is a contradiction, and I think this is true of much of Ireland’s work, brilliantly written and politically, hopelessly old-fashioned, though he’s pretty modern, gross even, about fucking and fighting. The following year, 1977, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip came out, another novel of inner suburban substance abuse in which the characters are clearly a generation younger than Meat’s ‘tribe’ (though the MF judges went with another old fashioned work, Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings). Ireland is old fashioned to the point of being reactionary about male bonding, about the subservience of women, and about the irrelevance of Aborigines and the appropriation of their stories
Being forced to drink at another pub was cruel. Like black men forced to leave their sacred places and water holes and become strangers in another tribe.
In the 1970s and 80s I devoured Ireland. I still think he is one of our great writers. But it is obvious too that I had absorbed the myths of Australian manhood and hadn’t – despite a decade’s immersion in socialist, anarchist and anti-war philosophy – begun to even remotely understand the problems race and gender identity.
Do I think you should read The Glass Canoe, yes I do. It’s an accurate portrait of working men, of working men who drank, of our fathers’ generation. If you’re a baby boomer who spent endless afternoons and evenings in the backseat, in the car park of the local hotel, then you will know Meat, you will know King and Mick and Serge and Alky Jack and Darkfella. David Ireland is worth reading, but read him (read everyone!) critically.
Above all, read David Ireland and post a review so I can share it and link it to my page (it’s coming!).
David Ireland, The Glass Canoe, Penguin, Melbourne, 1976