Dark­ness har­bours within the light

Delia Fal­coner

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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).

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