Darkness harbours within the light
Liam and Lora, who are expecting their first child. Liam works several blocks from the World Trade Centre. He spends Tuesday mornings out of the office and with his girlfriend on the other side of Manhattan. This causes conflict after the Tuesday morning attacks, when Liam must invent new lies in order to conceal his affair. These lies eventually provoke an intense guilt that calls Liam to visit his neighbourhood Catholic Church secretly to confess his sins.
After the couple’s pregnancy fails, they decide to have another child, but Lora uses Liam’s guilt to inflict revenge for another of her husband’s secrets.
As in the stories of Chekhov, the events that unfold in I Love You, Honey are worthy of a novel. McInerney demonstrates a remarkable ability to compress this material into less than 20 pages, making it, in the process, one of the most chilling stories yet about New Yorkers in the aftermath of the attacks.
Not all of the stories reach this power. The more forgettable, such as The Waiter and Everything is Lost , unfold with the same narrative arc as a joke, the punch lines arriving in the final sentences without the necessary gravitas to hold them together.
While The March picks up where The Good Life leaves off, the title story, which concerns an aging but famous New York playboy, is vintage McInerney. ‘‘ For two decades,’’ he writes, ‘‘[ A. G.] had been a kind of prince of the city, gliding between the social clubs of the Upper East-side and the nightclubs of downtown, an intimate of artistic circles as well as the world of inherited wealth.’’ It reads like an apology for some of the excesses of McInerney’s previous characters - and perhaps his own, as well.
SUNSHINE and noir are a compelling combination, as LA’s writers have long shown us. That Sydney’s dark places are abundant yet still haunted by the bush sunlight they not so long ago displaced makes its crime stories particularly potent.
Rather than emerging, like Melbourne’s, as some warped expression of the urban, Sydney’s crimes often seem more a chthonic eruption of feral rot; the acting out of a metropolis that, for all its shining endowments, has never experienced a golden age. Added to the cocktail is a longstanding addiction to the plain and downright ugly honed by years of austerity: dark brick, narrow footpaths, mean courtyards. There is still a lingering sense, especially in summer, that its streets enforce some harsh spiritual atonement in the face of the sensual habits of southerlies, humidity and harbour.
These thoughts came to mind looking at the 175 extraordinary photographs from the Sydney police forensic archive forming a kind of second novel within Ross Gibson’s novel, The Summer Exercises , the closest literary relative of which is Michael Ondaatje’s fragmentary photo-andprose ‘‘ poem’’, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid .
Gibson, a writer, academic and filmmaker, spent five years in the attic of the Justice & Police Museum working on half a million crime scene negatives from the 1940s and ’ 50s rescued from a flooded warehouse. In a wonderful academic essay ( Where the Darkness Loiters , published in 2000) he pondered the weird power of these pictures of the aftermaths of accidents, illegal gambling and assaults, which, he realised, conducted nothing less than ‘‘ a cumulative, intuitive survey of a society enduring flushes of desire and fear in the aftermath of [ World War II]’’.
No wonder, even after curating two exhbitions, Gibson felt there was still a novel in these photos. Not only were they a fascinating document of a city just closing over after a time of great social disruption. The fact that they had become separated from their original case files creates an almost unbearable sense of mystery about them, rudimentary labels acting like the titles of an artwork.
Their anxious scrutiny of often very ordinary places seems, if we look hard enough, to offer to take us on a psychic tank stream beneath the streets’ apparent order, to the strange, secret history at the harbour city’s heart.
Here, for example, is the scene of an undisclosed ‘‘ accidental death’’ in Barncleuth Lane, Kings Cross: a neat single bed, an open casement window, the summer haze of apartment rooftops beyond it.
In another photograph, documenting an illegal cockfight, there is nothing but an overturned crate in the middle of a bush clearing, a dry detritus of eucalyptus bark and leaves around it. Here, again, are empty parks marked by lines of dark-trunked palm trees, sites of indecent exposure; and lonely bays
Several of the stories, including Sleeping with Pigs , The Last Bachelor , and The Debutante’s Return , follow characters who divide their lives between New York and Tennessee. These stories show the continuing conflicts that divide North from South.
In them, McInerney writes movingly about characters who reinvent their lives, as in Summary Judgment , which concerns the screwball comedy-like manipulations of a highsociety woman.
In Penelope on the Pond McInerney revisits one of his most famous characters, Allison Poole, the cocaine-addled party girl whose voice fuels Story of My Life ( 1988). Two decades later, Allison’s hectic lifestyle has settled, at least somewhat. In her own parlance, she’s now having an affair with the man who is, like, running for president? While he campaigns, she where drownings have occurred, in which the weird tranquility of the image seems to have closed over their missing subjects. Many pictures are greyed by excessive sunlight.
Gibson’s approach to the archive’s dark soul in The Summer Exercises is one of those ideas so perfect it is almost enough to make another writer cry. He writes in the voice of an anonymous civilian chaplain attached to the Central Street Police Station over the hot summer of 1946.
Following in the tradition of Ignatius Loyola, he feels driven to write a set of spiritual exercises: a month of self-challenging fivetimes-a-day meditations that can push the believer to a deeper level of commitment, or destroy him.
The chaplain’s notebooks echo the real history of these photos; discovered in the GPO’s Dead Letter office, a ‘‘ publisher’s note’’ inform us, their author’s fate remains unknown. In this way Gibson finds a voice equal to the weird demands these photos make on the viewer; one that expands on their mysteries and captures their spiritual disturbance.
Scant threads of narrative emerge. The existence of sexually exploited tunnel children, the disappearance of a man’s wife into the world of illegal stag films, an AWOL jazzplaying black US serviceman. We watch the chaplain begin to fail, exposed to a world of temptation and loss.
But Gibson’s book is more an associative prose-poem, a searching bricolate of descriptions of enigmatic detectives, fragments, and moody invocations ( types of rain: ‘‘ like England’’, ‘‘ slippery, a lubricant’’). Its meditative quality is enhanced by the entries of the anonymous publisher, as prone to obsession and poetry as the chaplain.
As first one resists the dizzying parallel unfolding of prose and photos, which seem to need some more solid, foundational exposition. Early passages, too, can feel like a distraction from the grainy aura of these pictures; and, while often superb, Gibson’s descriptions are not always on the money.
Yet, The Summer Exercises honours the poetry of these strangely beautiful photographs, whose composition speaks to us of their anonymous photographers’ ‘‘ determination’’, as Gibson wrote in his essay, ‘‘ to know sadness, ugliness and horror’’. As a primal invocation of a bruised city it is engaging, strangely moving, and exciting. hides out in a friend’s cabin to prevent the media from discovering the affair. McInerney has said that Poole is based on an old girlfriend, Rielle Hunter. In 2008, Hunter was named as the woman involved in an extramarital affair with US presidential candidate John Edwards, which makes Penelope at the Pond akin to reading the gossip pages.
Even when he’s unsuccessful, it’s difficult to turn from McInerney’s charm and sharp wit. In The Last Bachelor , he remains a great chronicler of troubled lives and failing relationships. While these stories remind us that some writers have few stories to tell, their variations on a theme are often enough to keep us returning to the work, even after a quarter century. Delia Falconer is the author of The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire: a novel ( Scribe).