Of the damned

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

won­der and ter­ror at what peo­ple can do.

There is an elec­tric cur­rent of sin and guilt run­ning through each writer’s work, and what is thrilling in the lat­ter case is watch­ing the sur­vival of what we have come to think of as an an­tique Amer­i­can at­ti­tude — in which the fierce stric­tures of New Eng­land pu­ri­tanism are pushed up against the hard edges of life.

How else to ex­plain the ex­is­ten­tial im­per­a­tives laid down in sto­ries such as Es­cape from Spi­der­head, Vic­tory Lap and the stun­ning ti­tle story, Tenth of De­cem­ber? In each case characters are faced with a choice be­tween an­i­mal in­stinct — to run from or cower in the face of more pow­er­ful agents or ter­ri­ble oc­cur­rence — and eter­nal damna­tion (though in th­ese more re­cent con­texts damna­tion is more a mat­ter of in­di­vid­ual con­science than the cer­tainty of hell­fire).

Tenth of De­cem­ber, which is surely the best thing that Saun­ders has pro­duced, sets out only the barest of nar­ra­tive branches. A sick man who has wan­dered from his home in freez­ing weather, wear­ing lit­tle more than py­ja­mas, saves a young boy who has fallen through the ice of a pond in a semi-wilder­ness on the out­skirts of an un­named sub­urb. On re­viv­ing, the boy runs home in panic, leav­ing the man dan­ger­ously ex­posed to the el­e­ments. The story con­cludes with the boy’s mother, alerted to the man’s hero­ism, set­ting out to try to find him and bring him safely home.

Save the in­cred­i­bly com­plex in­ter­play of me­mory and per­spec­tive that Saun­ders em­ploys here, there is a still­ness and sim­plic­ity in this story that is quite at odds with the hec­tic, noi­some, ma­te­ri­ally re­plete Amer­ica of those pre­ced­ing it.

The ques­tions it asks, too, about the na­ture of per­sonal courage and the mo­ral ne­ces­sity of brav­ery — about the re­spon­si­bil­ity we owe to our chil­dren and our neigh­bours — are posed with a qui­etude and sin­cer­ity that beg­gar the small­ness of spirit that, for the au­thor, is the de­fault im­pulse of con­tem­po­rary life.

The story’s con­clu­sion rep­re­sents the kind of mod­est, mi­nor-key cathar­sis that only a writer trued by the cer­tainty of their tal­ent could ex­tend.

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