Boomers crash on the coast

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nigel Krauth The Rip By Robert Drewe Hamish Hamil­ton, 220pp, $ 35

THE short story form fo­cuses on cri­sis. It ab­bre­vi­ates build- ups and cur­tails ac­counts of con­se­quences. It con­cen­trates on the break­ing point. This is true of the 13 el­e­gant sto­ries in Robert Drewe’s new col­lec­tion, The Rip . Nearly all of them trace midlife cri­sis: the cracks have ap­peared and things fall apart. Oth­ers, not about midlife, con­cern chil­dren in crises that re­lay their ef­fects to cri­sis- prone adults.

In the sto­ries, Drewe fleshes out a spe­cial Aus­tralian land­scape of cri­sis: the sea and tree change real- es­tate de­vel­op­ments of cen­tral and north coast NSW, and the south­west coast of West­ern Aus­tralia. Pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered new fron­tiers, th­ese beach­side boomer- re­lo­ca­tion com­mu­ni­ties are now in­sti­tu­tions. Much mar­i­tal ten­sion, dis­loy­alty and heartache has re­set­tled there, in de­cen­tralised zones marked by per­sonal and re­la­tion­ship dis­as­ters. Es­cap­ing the city sub­urbs for ocean and for­est views doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cure any­thing.

In the ti­tle story, The Rip , a woman pre­tends she’s a re­porter, knee- deep in waves at a re­cent shark- at­tack beach spot. Her hus­band, armed with the home video cam­era, pre­tends he’s a news cam­era­man. They’re do­ing this prank for fam­ily view­ers. Th­ese are ma­ture peo­ple, re­tired, play­ing at be­ing me­dia per­son­al­i­ties. They are ig­no­rant about the rip. The woman is car­ried away while the hus­band keeps film­ing. She al­most drowns.

It’s a telling sym­bol for the col­lec­tion. Drewe em­pha­sises that we rarely ex­pect the sud­den­ness of the force that de­rails us, whether it be emo­tional, fi­nan­cial or le­gal. But un­seen rips roil un­der the sur­faces of our lives all the time.

In an­other story, a mid­dle- aged woman has se­cretly joined a gym to get fit and re­ju­ve­nate her mar­riage; she’s on a tread­mill ex­er­ciser when she looks out the win­dow and sees her hus­band meet a younger woman in the street out­side. An­other ex­am­ple: a mid­dle- aged man re­ceives a gift of a kayak from his wife, an in­di­ca­tor to get fit and im­press her; when he pad­dles man­fully to a sand­bank in the es­tu­ary and turns to wave, she is gone.

Else­where, while try­ing to at­tract his wife back from the ‘‘ spir­i­tual jour­ney’’ she has taken with a su­per­an­nu­ated By­ron Bay artist, a strug­gling mid­dle- aged cof­fee planter finds the new Pa­cific High­way re­align­ment will rip a swath out of the mid­dle of his prop­erty and liveli­hood.

Drewe drills down into the emo­tions of mid­dle Aus­tralians and their im­age of them­selves. It’s a fraught ter­ri­tory of boomer ex­pec­ta­tions, the last gasp of the 1960s sex­ual revo­lu­tion primed with beach and cor­po­rate cul­ture hope­ful­ness. Fu­elled by their es­capist, re­lo­ca­tion­ist dreams, th­ese Aus­tralians em­brace the coast and ex­pect sal­va­tion.

To find their grand hopes cheated is tan­ta­mount to a na­tional be­trayal. Drewe’s char­ac­ters, set­ting off on their ‘‘ spir­i­tual jour­neys’’, flee sub­urbs, busi­nesses and mar­riages and meet dis­heart­en­ing re­al­ity. It’s as though there was a na­tional arthri­tis set­ting in. A gen­er­a­tion that has prided it­self on its vi­tal­ity is dis­cov­er­ing its fee­ble­ness. Char­ac­ters in th­ese sto­ries suf­fer the per­sonal pow­er­less­ness that sym­bol­ises a na­tional trend.

‘‘ Af­ter a life­time of surf­ing, his knees had fi­nally given up on squat­ting and swiv­el­ling. Arthri­tis had teased and twinged and now painfully set­tled. Not that he’d sur­ren­dered without a strug­gle. He’d at­tempted to de­lay the

in­evitable by swap­ping a short­board’s wa­verip­ping and carv­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for that stolid stand- by of the mid­dle- aged surfer, the Mal­ibu.’’

Drewe’s writ­ing has al­ways been skil­fully limpid. It seems as though there’s noth­ing much there, that it’s an ac­count of life on the sur­face. But of course, this is not true. Drewe’s sub­tle strokes cap­ture the ap­par­ent action of the mo­ment and the un­der­ly­ing, en­dur­ing pic­ture. He en­tices read­ers with sim­plic­ity, then belts them with sig­nif­i­cance.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the story Sea Level. A tsunami warn­ing is broad­cast and the chil­dren in a coastal school are picked up one at a time by their fright­ened par­ents. Pro­gres­sively, all mem­bers of the class are taken to higher ground, above reach of the tsunami, ex­cept for one. No­body comes to get him. The story ends. Then you re­alise: it’s not just a kid who’s been left vul­ner­a­ble, it’s Ev­ery­man.

Tim Win­ton’s re­cent novel, Breath, throws re­newed fo­cus on surf­ing and the beach as cen­tral cul­tural in­di­ca­tors. In Drewe’s The Rip , few of the mid- life char­ac­ters still surf, but they all have a no­tion that be­ing close to the beach is im­por­tant to their sur­vival.

At­tach­ment to the coast is a sav­ing grace for Aus­tralians th­ese days. We be­lieve we will es­cape the dire side of work, re­la­tion­ships and age­ing by re­lo­cat­ing to the coast. We want the wa­ter view. That is, un­til the tsunami en­gulfs us.

Sun­set strip: In his new book, Robert Drewe taps into mid­dle Aus­tralia’s sea- change ob­ses­sion

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