Those Who Perish, Emma Viskic

Back in the 1950s, which sometimes still feels like yesterday, ‘people’ would complain, about Doris Day movies, that breaking into song at critical moments was ‘unrealistic’. It took me a long time to understand that musical theatre was an art form with particular rules into which the story was made to fit, and longer to realise that all modes of story telling have rules which of course skillful story tellers modify as they go along.

What brought this to mind today was the extraordinary, “unrealistic” – for ‘real’ life, not for thrillers – number of violent deaths which deaf PI Caleb Zelic has to deal with over the course of this novel. I’m sure action thrillers are also an art form, but killing for art’s sake is not a concept that turns me on.

Nevertheless, except for one sequence which seemed to me was going to be all ‘action’, I listened all the way through to the end and in places even experienced mild enjoyment. One of the great improvements in crime fiction over time has been the increased emphasis on character development, and that is the case here.

Caleb Zelic lives in Melbourne but his Indigenous wife comes from a fictional Victorian coastal town, three and a half hours away, population 3,000, with a small, habitable island nearby. Let’s deal with the geography first (non-Victorians can skip the next para.)

The town is probably based on a mix of Port Fairy and Warrnambool: the distance is right; there’s a fishing fleet; Port Fairy is about that size; Warrnambool is bigger but the Framlingham Mission – a ‘miss.’ is mentioned – is nearby; and so on. Neither has an island, though the uninhabited Lady Julia Percy Is. is down the coast from Port Fairy; and the ferry which plays a central part in the story is clearly based on the cable drawn ferries over the Murray River that would sink if ever put to sea.

The next issue to get out of the way is cultural appropriation. WG, I’m sure, would applaud Viskic for using Aboriginal characters – Zelic’s wife, Kat, his mother in law, Mick, his friend and neighbour – in important roles in the story. For once I tend to side with her, though I think Viskic goes a little too far in describing Kat’s eagle totem, the cultural significance of mutton birds, stuff like that.

The other ‘cultural’ idea which slides along is the significant Yugoslav community in Australia. Viskic herself has a ‘Dalmatian’ father (Wiki). Zelic’s father’s ancestry is unstated and his sternness, the failure to acknowledge/express feelings isn’t restricted to (former) Yugoslavs.

Melanie, meanwhile is going “deaf PI, deaf PI, how does that work?” I can only imagine Viskic has a deaf (indeed a Deaf) family member. Caleb had meningitis at 5 years which destroyed his hearing. Despite the opposition of his father, he was taught Auslan and attended Deaf school, and is a member of the Deaf community in Melbourne. He insists on meeting hearing friends and informants in a Deaf community cafe, convincingly described.

His brother and his wife are both fluent in Auslan, but he deals with others, and of course his job involves a great deal of listening, by lip-reading with the aid of hearing aids which inflict on him high levels of tinnitus. His deafness is an element in nearly every interaction in the novel, and is very well done.

So, on to Those Who Perish (2022), the fourth in a series – don’t genre novels always hunt in series – featuring Caleb Zelic and his (recovering) drug addict brother Anton.

Kat, an artist, is living with her parents in ____ Bay, which is also the town Caleb and Anton grew up in, surrounded by family, while she sees out the last 8 weeks or so of her pregnancy.

Anton is in a rehabilitation clinic on the island. At the beginning of the novel Caleb has received an anonymous text stating that his brother is in danger and has rushed to the Bay where he discovers his brother pinned down by a sniper on the beach. He rescues him by crashing a tip truck, conveniently parked nearby with the keys in the ignition, into the toilet block in which the sniper is concealed.

A dead man is fished from the sea, shot through the forehead. He turns out to be another patient from the rehab. facility. Caleb spends the next few weeks mostly on the island, thinking up reasons why he shouldn’t tell the police what’s going on, as more people are shot, including the local policeman; surviving (by the skin of his teeth, of course) numerous attempts on his own life; and also thinking up new ways to piss off his wife who clearly loves him, while fighting off the temptations of the island’s token blonde beauty of loose virtue.

There’s also a totally irrelevant subplot about Caleb being asked to solve the mystery of who is publishing incriminating photos of members of the local football team; which leads him to having a long discussion, for no logical reason, with his doctor mother in law about bent dicks. And no, the comic subplot doesn’t merge with the serious murder plot in the last chapter, as you might expect, but is ‘solved’ in an unnecessary epilogue.

I don’t review crime fiction often but I listen to far too many. This one was at least Australian, though the Victorian element was not up there with, say Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. The characters were interesting; Caleb’s inability to not be jealous of Kat’s handsome, Indigenous, smooooth workmate was totally believable; the crime plot was maybe 6 out of 10 (the comic subplot was 3/10). Add it to your list Melanie, I’d be interested to hear what you say about Viskic’s treatment of deafness.

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Emma Viskic, Those Who Perish, 2022 (Book might not be out yet), read by Lewis Fitz-Gerald

Melanie/Grab the Lapels doesn’t (yet) have a heading for Deaf.Lit but here is her latest review: Deaf & Sober by Betty G Miller

Wish, Peter Goldsworthy

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [SA]

Wish

Last week Sue/Whispering Gums’ Monday Musings was on the subject of deafness and Australian writing, and the very small number of works dealing with disability. Coincidentally, my next read for #ausreading month was Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (1995), set in Adelaide, SA, which is on the subject not exactly of deafness but of communication by Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

Goldsworthy is (apparently) a well-known and respected Australian author, though not one of whom I was aware, and the subject of a glowing overview in the Introduction to this Text edition (I wonder what it says about Australian readers’ relation to Text Classics that the publisher gets a much bigger billing than the author or the title). Still, I found Wish uncomfortable reading, too long and boring in parts, and a protagonist who at times made me squirm – which may be my problem and not the book’s!

The protagonist, JJ, is a late 30s guy, living at home again – in Glenelg, on the beach – with his profoundly deaf parents after the failure of his marriage. Though not deaf himself, Auslan had been his first language as a child, and English only his second and not one with which he is ever entirely comfortable. As an adult he makes his living as a teacher of Auslan, mostly to people wishing to converse with deaf friends and relatives.

JJ’s marriage has failed, basically because he’s withdrawn from it, from both his wife and their teenage daughter. It’s not clear why, though it’s at least possible he is emasculated by his wife’s intellect and drive, and also by his discomfort with his own body shape (fat). At the commencement of the novel JJ, who has been away in the US, is offered a teaching job at the Deaf Institute, by a smart-arse who had formerly been his student.

There is a lot of discussion about Auslan throughout, some of it generated by JJ’s difficult relationship with his boss, who is not a native speaker, augmented by frequent sketches of hand positions. One of the features of Auslan is that everyone has an Auslan name, not just a transliteration of their name in English – which in any case can often only be rendered by spelling. So, the boss’s name, behind his back at least, is Miss-the-Point (the sign is a sweeping of one hand over the head, which you would think he might notice).

Another smug, high-beam smile. I had taught Miss-the-Point his first signs, and he wasn’t about to let me forget it. Some debts are too great to repay, let alone forgive.

Miss-the-Point gives JJ the beginners class in which his two best pupils are a 40ish sexy woman and her older husband, a famous animal rights campaigner. They, soon offer JJ part-time work teaching sign to their differently-abled foster daughter.

So the core of the plot is the triangle formed by JJ, the sexy mother and the daughter, for whom, and for only whom, JJ finds himself re-tumescing. The daughter, who is effectively unable to speak, blossoms as she learns sign. Between them, they choose for her the name ‘Wish’ and for the parents, the names ‘Star’ and ‘Saint’. Wish is past puberty and clearly has a crush on JJ. Star isn’t getting it from Saint, and when Saint goes overseas on book tour duty, makes it clear – in fairly humiliating fashion – that she wants it from JJ who has chucked in his job and is staying over. JJ is engrossed by his involvement in Wish’s progress, he thinks.

I slumped over the sink, wobble-kneed, paralysed. Horror at my actions filled me, the hands of sign-shame rose to hide my face. The noise of my coming would surely bring Wish down the stairs. I couldn’t face her; I could barely face myself.

He flees back to Glenelg, whose grey, almost landlocked waters are the only place he feels comfortable with his bulk

The first heart-stopping shock of cold quickly faded, and I felt only a warm glow as I floated beyond the surf line, sole swimmer as far as the eye could see. Less bouyant without my rubber suit, I was still unsinkable, more walrus than man.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is conducting a one woman campaign against fat shaming in literature, which has certainly made me think more about representations of body shape. In this context it would be interesting to know if Goldsworthy is a) fat; and for that matter, b) fluent in Auslan.

The story takes a science-fictiony turn, a feature of Goldsworthy’s writing apparently, and maybe an early example of mainstream lit. turning to SF for inspiration, but only in the explanation for Wish’s behaviour. JJ returns. Wish refuses all attempts at communication, but when JJ goes to bed, there’s just one wall between them. It’s all getting too close to actual sex between teacher and adolescent student. I stop reading, at p 305 out of 377.

Sorry. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself.

 

Peter Goldsworthy, Wish, first pub. 1995. This edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2013

see also: Lisa/ANZLL’s review of Goldsworthy’s memoir His Stupid Boyhood (here)