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.