Today’s post was meant to be a review of Nam Le’s short story collection, The Boat (2008) but after the first story, Le keeps writing about everything but himself, and when he got to the bit where he was a thirtyish woman having sex with her boyfriend I tossed it aside. And I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like arguing today about my preference for literature to be written from lived experience.
Sue (WG) tells me Nam Le has been lauded for his ability to present so many varied points of view but I don’t see how you can read the intense first story about a writer in the US dealing with his Vietnamese refugee father dealing with all his demons, and then be happy to settle for the entertainments which follow.
But the space below is still asking to be filled. I will write a story of my own. Toss me aside at this or any other point, I won’t blame you. Better still, go down to the bottom and tell me at what point you tossed me aside.
This brings me to think about the difference between writing a story and yarning. I noted when I reviewed Vance Palmer’s collection the Rainbow-Bird that he found it difficult to get going, fell back on the yarning style encouraged by the Bulletin. Nam Le begins his first story, “My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem …” and he begins the second, “In Cartegena, Luis says, the beach is grey at dawn.” This is enough to get me going.
The Young Bride had a problem, too much bleeding. When I met her and persuaded her to live with me in 1971 she had dropped out of high school, left home, taken a room with a couple of mates of mine in Carlton who had an old terrace house later demolished for the (old) Royal Women’s carpark.
RT and I had a much nicer two storey terrace in Drummond Street, had taken it early in the summer break so we would be set for the following year but our Greek landlord sold out to some distant connection of the premier for her two posh daughters. Luckily RT was posh too, Toorak, Melbourne Grammar and all that, and their mother let us stay. But I reacted in the worst possible way to all this poshness so that by the time YB came into the picture RT and I had moved to another old terrace house facing the back of the Windsor Hotel in the City.
That very first night, finding half my bed was empty I went downstairs to find YB crying and bleeding in the outside dunny. This happened a bit, and one night not long after found RT and me piggy backing YB up Russell Street to Royal Women’s where she was admitted, after one of those interminable waits sitting through the night in the Emergency Department that I later got used to as a young parent.
Her parents and I didn’t hit it off.
At 20 doing a third first year, I was skinny, long haired, barefoot, poor and scruffy in a long grey overcoat (RT’s school overcoat, how posh was that) and torn jeans. I sat by YB’s bed, or outside, all day, but when her mum and dad and little brothers and sister turned up that evening I took off. Not with any idea of where I wanted to go, but just wanting to keep moving. Walked across the uni to Royal Parade, faced north up Sydney Road, stuck out my thumb and got a lift through the narrow shopfronts and tired neon of Brunswick and Coburg, out past Pentridge to what was then the outer northern limits of the City.
The first time I had done this was on the very first weekend of my first first year. Not knowing anyone else in Trinity, which in any case was nearly empty, Engineering starting two weeks earlier then the rest, I walked out into Royal Parade on a fine autumn morning and hitched up to Sydney, walked across the Harbour Bridge, which I had never seen before, and was back home Sunday evening.
I’d started hitching the previous year, in high school, to get to other country towns to play football or hockey. Then over summer I’d left my uncle’s farm where I was working while Mum and Dad and the boys were away on holidays, hitched back to Mudsville for New Years Eve, got work haycarting, hitched down to Queenscliff at weekends where Fancy was holidaying with her parents.
After that first time I hitched again to Sydney and came home down the coast road, told one guy I was an orphan and he promised to train me up as a bulldozer driver; hitched up the Calder to Mildura then across into SA, riding through the night in a Lake Boga R190 Inter, Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay blasting out, the first time I’d heard it. Made it to Port Augusta that trip before deciding to turn back, got a lift in an airconditioned Monaro, another first, came home via Adelaide, Murray Bridge, spent hours waiting for a lift south to the Mount and more hours after midnight at Heywood, maybe one vehicle every half hour, engine noise building, building, passing, fading. A truck at last took me right to Melbourne, stopped for a while in Mudsville to drop off some timber. I pretended I’d never been there.
Hitching was easy. Later, when I hitched home from Brisbane for my 21st birthday, Mum and Dad drove me back out to Campbellfield, and there were maybe six kids waiting for a lift, strung out along the road. Honour had it that the latecomer took the furthest spot, but that didn’t bother me, I preferred to hitch walking, looking back over my shoulder. The next morning in Sydney, which was really my 21st birthday an old guy took me home and gave me cornflakes for breakfast, set me back out on the Windsor Road and the first guy to stop, in a Rapid Transport Transtar, was the guy who’d brought me down from Bris. I leaned casually with my elbow on the window until he admired my new gold watch.
So this night in 1970 I’m heading north out of town and a guy fortyish maybe picks me up in an old Customline, says he knows a back way to Seymour and I don’t care, I like new roads, we wind through the bush till he pulls up. It’s time to deliver. I get out, he gets out. It’s dark, cold, silent. In front of the car we wrestle furiously, I want his car keys. He wants … But I’m too young and strong for him to get it by force. Eventually, I break away. He tears off in the car. I struggle across paddocks to a distant light, a farmhouse. Wake the farmer and he calls the police. The policeman is furious. Bloody longhairs. He drives me back to Seymour and warns me never to be seen in his town again.
I get a lift home, pick up YB from hospital. We live happily ever after, for a few years anyway.
BlakWorks, Alison Whittaker
Waterway (1938), Eleanor Dark