The multicultural gang’s all here
Luck in the Greater West By Damian McDonald ABC Books, 234pp, $ 29.95
SYDNEY- BASED debut novelist Damian McDonald won this year’s ABC fiction award with his novel Luck in the Greater West , which is partly about immigration and class but also about gang rape. Set in Sydney’s western suburbs, this is realist entertainment at its most gritty, featuring characters who range from the vaguely unappealing ( drug dealers and pregnant teens) to the outright detestable: hatefilled, Lebanese Muslim gang rapists.
Much of McDonald’s plot is concerned with the illicit, sexy love affair that blossoms between the novel’s protagonist, drug dealer Patrick White, and underage schoolgirl and Russian emigre Sonja. Whitey, as Patrick is known, has just been released from jail ( where he served time for dealing drugs) when he meets Sonja, who lives in the same block of housing commission flats.
Whitey ditches his casual girlfriend, Natalie, and he and Sonja immerse themselves in a passionate affair. But when Natalie is gangraped, Whitey’s criminal record means he is taken in for questioning, and Sonja, seeing Whitey for the first time without her rose- tinted spectacles, drops him even though she is pregnant with their child.
McDonald’s portraits are nearly all wellobserved and sympathetic. The exception is his portrait of Abdullah, the leader of the gang rapists and a somewhat two- dimensional villain. But the novel’s greatest strength lies in McDonald’s use of voice to create character, and his skilful manipulation of point of view to create suspense.
McDonald’s characters are also thoroughly multicultural. In addition to Anglo- Australian Whitey, Russian Sonja and Maltese- Australian Nat, there’s Italo- Australian Mia and her father, Senior Sergeant Testafiglia, of the local police. Then there’s Muslim, LebaneseAustralian Abdullah, full of hatred and angry, expletive- laden thoughts, and Fadi, his Lebanese- Australian offsider.
Though a minor character, Fadi is the driving force of the novel’s only redeeming moment. In the confusion after his gang has raped young Anglo- Australian Tenille, Fadi ends up with her mobile phone. During the next few days, he finds himself thinking obsessively about her, remembering how she looked when he’d pulled out the gun and how his arousal had evaporated with her outrage and fear. Soon he is obsessed with returning her mobile phone. With a halfbaked apology in mind he calls her at work but is arrested by police before he can tell her how he feels.
Less successful are McDonald’s attempts to frame the events depicted in the novel and his strategy of naming the central character after Australian author Patrick White. The first few paragraphs of the novel are painted in bold, rhetorical strokes that feel heavy- handed and out of sync with the novel’s overall style. The equally rhetorical reference to the Lucky Country in the epilogue suffers from a similar lack of subtlety. Taken together, the two frame the events, but they feel a bit forced.
More confusing than anything, the Patrick White reference seems at odds with McDon- ald’s essentially realist project, as the strategy of naming characters after writers is more commonly employed by postmodern authors such as Kathy Acker.
But the novel’s most contentious aspect lies in McDonald’s decision to give his fictional gang leader a Lebanese Muslim ancestry. This strategy adds little to the plot and could leave McDonald open to accusations of sensationalism. Few readers will fail to make the connection between McDonald’s novel and the real- life Lebanese gang rapes that traumatised Sydney in 2000. McDonald’s attempt to tie his otherwise very good novel to a controversial media debate feels clumsy. Again, while such a strategy may work well in a postmodern novel, it feels out of place in a realist one, especially one with such a strongly romantic plot.
Curiously, Andrew Hutchinson’s debut novel Rohypnol , which depicts young male perpetrators of date rape, won last year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards prize for an unpublished manuscript by an emerging Victorian writer. It’s quite a coincidence that two young male Australian authors are making their names by writing contentious novels depicting the rape of women by men.
In McDonald’s case, there is a moral to the story that suggests artistic integrity: when it comes to immigration, assimilation is the best policy. Make the most of your life in Australia and, like Sonja, you will prosper; but refuse to assimilate, like Abdullah, and tragedy will follow. Justine Ettler is a novelist, academic and journalist who lives in Sydney.