Feature Author 2019: David Ireland
The Fleasheaters (1972) was David Ireland’s third novel, following a year after his (first of three) Miles Franklin award winning The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. I couldn’t find the cover above, of the original Angus & Robertson hardback, on the web, so I’ve photographed the copy given to me in 1973 by the Young Bride. It’s hard to imagine now, waiting for the new release of the latest sensational Australian writer, but I used to, for Ireland and Carey particularly, and to a lesser extent, for Tom Keneally.
The setting of The Fleasheaters is Merry Lands, a rooming house in one of those old working class suburbs around Parramatta (Sydney, NSW) where Ireland grew up and worked, and which were the setting also for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe (1976). In fact, the protagonist/narrator, Lee drinks at the Southern Cross, the hotel at the heart of The Glass Canoe.
At the front of the house an old veranda had a curved corrugated iron roof, candy-striped in rust-red and aged-white. S plates held the ends of the brick walls. High up, an attic window had been bricked in … Wisteria climbed up to the half-glassed veranda. Bags flapped further back. Wrought iron lace-work decorated the upper storey.
Brick additions had been made to the stone, timber extensions to the brick, fibrocement additions to the timber, and from fibro down to corrugated iron, hessian, then chaff bags sewn together.
I remember houses like that on The Esplanade in St Kilda, Surrey Hills in Sydney, in the Valley and New Farm in Brisbane, let by the room to derros and workers down on their luck, half-way houses for society’s leftovers, sufferers of congenital poverty and unemployability. All gone now, or gentrified, million dollar mansions.
As with the other two, Ireland builds his ‘story’ by short sketches as Lee is introduced by the landlord O’Grady to his fellow inmates. In fact, it’s possible Ireland wrote the three all together – men at work, men down the pub, and this one, men in a home. It feels like he did, though the characters don’t cross over, or not that I noticed.
Lee lives with Clayton Hercules Emmet who, outside Merry Lands is a lover of women and a dissector of animals; is friends with Scotty, a would-be writer whose ‘room’ is a tree-house; and is an observer of all the others, permanent and temporary, men, women, and couples.
Scotty has the last line of his book – “Far more than when she was naked” – and is waiting for the words preceding to fall into place. Granny Upjohn wears a dog collar and is chained to her kennel. She is viscious and must be sedated for family visits; at night she barks to the Grannys in the other back yards. Fred and Felicity, pensioners, and Granny share one set of dentures between them. Summo works at a nearby industrial plant. A big man, he terrorizes his wife. His employers are already easing him out, so when he loses his hand they put him on light duties, preparatory to making him redundant, to avoid paying compensation. O’Grady uses a half brick to teach his basset to speak. John Luck, fat and ill, goes off to work every morning. He “hasn’t had a day off in fourteen years”. Trouble is, he was put off three months ago.
“O’Grady,” I said, “what can be done for them?”
O’Grady said, “Forget it. They’re incurably poor. You can’t do anything for them. A hundred dollars a week and they’d still be poor. This is the only society we have, the only one we know. It’s a money society. So if they’re poor, they’re inadequate. If they’re inadequate they’re mentally ill, by the definition of our society. Their illness can’t be fixed by effort or dollars.”
As usual, Ireland is contemptuous of women. Joy Luck takes the handyman to bed and when John comes home from ‘work’ he has no choice but to lie beside them. Ann, who bends over in the garden to display her buttocks to passersby, tells her husband she’s been unfaithful, and he shoots her dead. Cicely and her baby live in a ‘room’ under the house made of sheets of corrugated iron tacked to the stumps. “Cicely’s strong point was she was a virgin” – a tattooed virgin with a child, who went out every night looking for men. Crystal, Emmet’s girlfriend who comes to live with them, believes every man should be given whatever he asks of her.
And the title? ‘”We are the ransackers of the planet”, Clayton said. “Progress is the worst flesheater of all. Our existence depends on the death of other organisms and the despoiling of the planet.”‘
When I think about it, David Ireland is probably our first serious post-modernist writer. His works investigate a post-industrial world, ahead of time really given he was writing in the 1970s, seeing not that industry will fail or be off-shored, but that the giant corporations will move away from mass employment as a model, towards automation, as they have, leaving in their wake a vast underclass of people who don’t have, will never have, work. And that society will turn its back on these people.
And he expresses this not through social realism and the politics of the left as was the case between the Wars, nor generally through dystopian near futures as is more often the case now, but through right wing populism and the literary tropes of satire, irony and magic realism, as in the grandmother who must be chained to her kennel; service stations for the bulk-dispensing of drugs; and culminating of course in Althea, “A Woman of the Future“, mutating into a panther and fleeing Sydney for the Blue Mountains.
Ireland is an important and maybe even, revolutionary writer. The Flesheaters is not his best work, but it is an interesting one, especially when read in conjunction with The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe, which together provide a snapshot of both our Anglo White-Australian past and our neo-liberal future.
David Ireland, The Flesheaters, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1972
see also my other David Ireland posts: –
David Ireland (here)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here)
The Glass Canoe (here)
A Woman of the Future (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here)
PS. Another quote:
I had a vision, looking down, of the time in the future when the carbondioxide level in the atmosphere will be so much higher. I felt the increased radiation of the sun, the gradual heating of the earth, the melting of the polar ice-caps, the sea rising a foot a year. And why should I worry? What could anyone do? Industrial production and its constant growth was god. (p. 129)
Yes, we knew 40, 50 years ago that global warming was coming. And we did nothing. Industry, and the corporations that own them, are indeed god.