“Dirt Music” by Tim Winton. A review

There is nothing light and frivolous about Tim Winton’s novel, “Dirt Music”. I know he’s Australian and I know that he wins awards, but I had to struggle through this book. Winton’s motto appears to be “to make a short story long”. One almost wonders if he were paid by the word.

Whenever I fail to be impressed by something Australian it makes me feel bad. Australia is my adopted country and it has been good to me. In fact, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

But reading Winton is a chore which strains my patriotism to the core because he’s so slow and revels in churning out metaphors that milk the Aussie myth. The one about laconic men who suffer in silence and women who are worn down by the harshness of the land. Pioneer stuff from a century ago.

International readers can’t be blamed for thinking that we all live in tin sheds, fish or hunt for our food, wander around aimlessly in the inland desert and befriend an aboriginal who’s wise and sarcastic.

Too many Aussie films and novels have done that theme to death in the past.

In reality, while some Aussies live in the outback, Australia is much more urbanised than the U.S.A. We live along the coastline in very large cities and the interior is a huge void. Ours is a metropolitan way of life. We shop in malls and in supermarkets, drink coffee at Starbucks and order pizzas “with the lot”. I have never met a full blood aboriginal in my life, nor have I tripped over a kangaroo in the street.

Winton’s characters are as foreign to me as Laplanders. Perhaps they live next door to Winton in Western Australia. They certainly remind me of those early cowboys in American Westerns. Tortured by some terrible ordeal in the past, trying to escape the angst by riding the trail and then being redeemed by a good (or bad) woman. Those cowboys stories were an appealing part of American mythology but they were an invention as well.

In “Dirt Music” we have a trio of caricatures. Georgie, who’s been everywhere and done everything and is now living with a rich fisherman, is the woman in a love triangle. She is not happy.

Jim Buckridge is the fisherman who is extremely wealthy but misses his late wife. His two sons resent Georgie. Once again, he reminds me of one of those ranchers in Westerns, all powerful, rich but repressed emotionally. We never learn what makes him tick. We just know that like a ticking bomb, he’s going to explode.

The third member of the triangle is Lu Fox who is haunted by the violent death of his family. He’s a poacher who encroaches on Jim’s fishing lease as well as on his woman.

When Lu is forced to run away because of his poaching, he travels North. He swims, hitches some rides and walks on very blistered feet. I view this as a journey into the proverbial desert so that he can get lost and then find himself.

He meets a few Aussie characters on his journey who have problems of their own.

A disconcerting trait about all the characters is that they speak in the same way, Winton’s way, which can be confusing. In my opinion, a good writer should be able to vary his characters’ dialogue. We should be able to recognise who’s talking by something distinctive in their language. Winton’s style makes this impossible. Furthermore, the people Lu meets are very one-dimensional and so cliché. I have read the original “Pilgrim’s Progress” and this is a poor relative of that genre.

This is no stroll in the park, by the way, because Western Australia is huge and I mean huge, bigger than Texas actually, and Lu manages to cross it from South to the Far North.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch Georgie’s relationship with Jim is unraveling. Georgie’s family problems suddenly surface and I really think that these are included to pad the plot since nothing much happens apart from Georgie staring into space and wondering where Lu is.

I don’t want to spoil the denouement for you, but suffice it to say that Jim and Georgie go in search of Lu, way up north. Do you think they find him just in the nick of time?

I was very relieved when I finished reading “Dirt Music” because it was tiresome. And yes, I had to read it for my book club or I would never have chosen it. It’s the third and definitely last book of Winton’s that I will pick up. “Dirt Music” is a book I could put down and I did that with a sigh of relief.

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9 thoughts on ““Dirt Music” by Tim Winton. A review

  1. Lili, you are not alone in your views on this book. Pretentious book club fodder. An edited version should be about a third to a half as long. The plot is unrealistic and the ending inane. The characters are caricatures and hardly likeable or remotely interesting. Tim, what were you thinking?

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    • Your review brings my own impressions together very nicely.
      There is a lack of depth or even credibility in the characters and their activities.
      It is too long. It was written for the US market and doesn’t come near Great Australian Novel status.
      Against these shortcomings Winton is compelling in his descriptions of environs and action narrative. Maybe that’s the visual culture mode.
      Thanks for your review and comment. Other reviews were superficial, or more like blurbs.. or dare I say it, “pretentious bookclub fodder.”

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      • I want to record a change of heart about Dirt Music.
        While some reviews may have been “pretentious bookclub” chat, mine was pompous. Smartarse and dismissive. Oscar the Grouch. In fact it’s not a review at all, just an assemblage of two or three (grumpy) thoughts inspired by reading others’ remarks. Mea culpa.
        Looking back over the novels I’ve read since I now realise I enjoyed Dirt Music better than any of them.. Without swinging too wildly in the opposite direction here I have to say the LiliGans protest about the bush focus and language of the novel when most Australians live on the coast is a little gratuitous. Also there is an Australian idiom in human relationships (middle class urban or bush) that IS more laconic and gender-differentiated by weather, the environment, distance and the slog of labour in rural and desert Australia. And guess who conveys this style of discourse so strongly, making it so authentic? “Tim Winton has an absolute command of the Australian vernacular,” writes The Guardian, 8/6/2002. I think it helps to understand that the characters are deeply flawed, so they’re going to try the reader’s patience at times. Or just about every time!
        I’ll never forget the wife with terminal cancer with her husband on her last journey in a rotten old van, and how Lu copes with their hardy independence (but underlying anguish and neediness) – by offering mechanical advice, was it, Aussie? .Talk about authenticity – superb writing, I thought.
        And yes the final scene was gripping, magical. -If Lu could hold his Breath. Speaking of which, the movie’s done apparently, great news! Far-fetched and cliched? Well this is the bush and it is graphic.When it jumps up and says Boo it can easily kick your head off. Snap. And does so more often than the over-ordered urban imagination might allow.
        Another confession: I read Dirt Music twice (and heard it on ABC rural radio when first published). Twice, that’s never happened with any book and I’m 68.
        A great Australian novel, no question. Cheers.

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      • To wired,
        Thank you for your very considered review of “Dirt Music.” It’s encouraging that people have such different views and can express them freely. I cannot consider myself to be a fan of Winton because he reminds me of the satire in “They’re a Weird Mob”. I feel that Winton is milking the Aussie vernacular just a bit too much to be taken seriously. At least John O’Grady alias Nino Culotta was mocking the Aussie language in an affectionate manner whereas Winton is too ambitious in his wide brown land with a dollop of eucalyptus thrown in. Personally, it made me squirm uncomfortably. It’s a wonder he didn’t throw in the old coolabah tree for good measure.
        Many thanks for your comment.

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      • Thank you so very much for your gracious and thoughtful response to my contribution.
        I too found Dirt Music drawn out at times. The story of Georgie’s sisters and dad did become a short-story not strongly anchored in the novel. There is a problem with lightweight long-suffering female characters and laconic chaps who don’t benefit from much depth or character development in the writing. Lu and Jim both become rather cliched characters, blokes who just do stuff. The film will have to make up lost ground here or it will be a bunch of Wolf Creek style culturally worthless Hollysqueak product.
        On the other hand location and environs – the great bush, surfing, holding the breath, travel over huge distances – are given character themselves. Men’s and boys’ relations with environs are what Tim Winton characters feel and he writes about struggle-in-the-real in a convincing and gripping way. But he also does personal emotional reflection convincingly, as in the retired policeman dad in Breath, or the exploration of fear in Eyrie. There’s clearly a huge talent in there. While I think of relationships awareness I look forward to Tim’s new stuff. Funnily enough, I’ve yet to read Cloudstreet. My equivalent of your Nino Culotta getting lampooned by ockers (in John O’Grady’s They’re a Weird Mob), is houses that apparently talk. I digress. But I enjoy the practice of writing and attempting reviews, so thanks again for the special opportunity of sharing some impressions.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAeqL-0TM0U – for a laugh, but also some further thoughts on landscape and environs may I offer some other dirt & wlidlife music? It’s optional. Season’s Greetings. 🙂

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      • I wish you Season’s Greetings too. Let’s hope that 2018 will be a more peaceful year. I wonder how long it will be before the practice of writing will be a forgotten pleasure. Will we all tweet and text ourselves into muteness and absence of intelligent communication?
        Funny you should mention reviews and how much you enjoy writing them. I happened to be a film and TV critic at the Brisbane Courier Mail (Queensland’s main newspaper) and did most of my reviews on BBC series. It was a very pleasant occupation because it involved critiquing and writing, a tempting combination,indeed.
        By the way, I highly recommend the marvellous series by Heather Ewart called “Back Roads”. It is screened on the ABC in Australia and provides a touching insight into life in small country towns in the Aussie outback. It made me cry.

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      • I’m enjoying your input. The short pithy tweet – or emoticons 😊 – take much less effort than communicating in a traditional format. – A writing discipline I used to treasure but have let slip.
        Thanks for this opportunity of reviving it on a small way – it’s quite something to not be producing text in the domain of claims, demands, negotiation – the ubiquitous transactions of all-day everyday life. Trying to do this all-day really is a cognitive health hazard. No wonder most older warriors let short-term recall slip!
        And our collective obsession with multiple transactions is indeed unwittingly – or in many ghastly business deals knowingly – destroying the very fabric of life and habitat 😢
        Charmed to get a glimpse of life as a lit-crit writer.
        Heather Ewart is remarkably the Country Stalwart – if you can do Smoky Bay (near Ceduna) you’re exceptional! Country conversation amongst white well-off citizens is unique. Both insightful and “corny” (an adjective I last heard from my late SA mum 40 years ago).
        Down-home, hard-working and enough Ma and Pa Kettle to make youngsters cringe with embarrassment…
        I’d better stop rabbiting on. Cheers

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      • Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. There’s a pleasure and reward for effort in writing that doesn’t come from curt Tweets and the other flood of transactions of the day. Heather Ewart is an Australian country stalwart. I have enjoyed her Back Roads. As a life-long South Australian, and largely in country areas, I recognise a distinctive idiom, sense of self, identity and humour amongst the dominant ‘middle class’ Europeans. Heather Ewart at Smoky Bay.. a few drinks, character and backwoods charm. Hospitality and the welcoming of outsiders is big in Heather’s show. Go well.

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

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  2. Marg,
    It’s good to see that I am not alone in my view. T.Winton’s style is grating. He rambles on and lives in some imaginary Australia that most of us don’t recognise. The shrimp on the barbie approach may go down very well on the Oprah Show but it does not resonate with the real Australia of today. It makes me wince uncomfortably. “Cloudstreet” was predictable but not bad. This one is plain boring.
    Apparently, there is going to be a film made of this novel starring Russell Crowe. If it’s anything like “Australia” we should be reaching for the nearest receptacle.

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