The mul­ti­cul­tural gang’s all here

Luck in the Greater West By Damian McDon­ald ABC Books, 234pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jus­tine Et­tler

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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