Boomers crash on the coast
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