Merciless Gods (2014) is Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction. I have been listening to the stories over a couple of months as I had time to kill, the Audible version, read, sadly, by Humphrey Bower whose educated, rounded tones are a very poor match for Tsiolkas’s frequently rough and ethnic protagonists.
Melanie/Grab the Lapels wrote, when she was reading Tsiolkas for the first time (The Slap) that she felt she “was being pursued by penises”. James Ley writes of these stories, “they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment.” (Sydney Review of Books, 1 Sept 2015). I can only say that Christos Tsiolkas writes with his dick.
If you are interested in a proper review, follow the link to Ley. I’ve been listening to these stories over a number of months and barely remember the last few I listened to, let alone the first. I would not have attempted this ‘review’ at all except that one story, Civil War, concerns a young man hitchhiking from Perth, getting lifts with truck drivers across the Nullarbor. Just for you, I am going to have to listen to it again, at my desk, so I can pause it and take notes.
Here’s an admission, discussing this story with Milly over dinner at the Balmoral, she looks it up. Now, days later, I can’t find what she found, a list of chapter headings/story names. Luckily, she gave the story a name, the reading doesn’t (yes it does, I just wasn’t paying attention), and searching on ‘Civil War Tsiolkas’ I find an earlier version published in the Barcelona Review, Issue #86 (here), so suddenly excerpts are a whole lot easier.
I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I’m travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert. God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand.
In fact, truck driving is a cocoon, insulating you from the sounds, the smells, even the temperature outside. Your preoccupation, to the extent that you are paying attention, is the road, always the road, what’s ahead – traffic, kangaroos, rest stops – and how your truck is doing. Looking around requires effort.
Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it.
‘Don’t you ever get bored by it?’
He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. ‘You can’t get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can’t get bored by this,’ and again he points across the scrub. ‘This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’
This is interesting, to me anyway, but is not the point of the story. In Perth, a “white city [living] in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants”, the narrator has had a lover, a young Aboriginal man, who has died of a drug overdose.
I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin.
I cried, but I’m still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance?
We move backwards and forwards, from the death and funeral of the young man, to the truck, a truckstop, a meeting of likeminded drivers.
‘People are getting ready … arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.’ He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying.
The drivers are certain that a civil war is coming, that Aboriginal people are being armed “by the Jews”, and that they, we, must be armed to put them down. The truck moves off again, night falls, the narrator dozes, wakes to see a dark shape in front of them, a thump, ‘Sorry, mate, I think I might’ve just hit some pissed coon.’
A week later he’s in Sydney, making a new life.
I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.
Do truck drivers really talk like that, is that what’s going on in the other Australia, the not-Melbourne-Sydney? Maybe. They certainly use that language, and the idea that “The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars” is widespread. But no one imagines that Indigenous people are armed, and hopefully the days of “dispersions” are over.
What really impressed me was not Tsiolkas’s “knowledge” of truck drivers but his self awareness as a white man that these thoughts are not entirely repressed in his own mind, nor in ours. As he leaves the family gathered around a fire in the backyard after the funeral –
And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards.
I’m ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.
I don’t recommend you read Merciless Gods. I don’t even recommend you read ‘Civil War’. Tsiolkas is a fine writer but his endless sex and violence is wearing.
Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, Allen & Unwin, 2014. Audio version Bolinda Books/Audible read by Humphrey Bower.