Sketches from a neighbourhood watch
The Local Wildlife
By Robert Drewe Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $29.99 (HB) OBERT Drewe began his writing life as a cadet reporter with The West Australian newspaper. In The Shark Net (2000), a memoir of Drewe’s youth written in the shadow of Perth serial killer Eric Cooke, he wrote about those early days as a keen young journalist assigned to cover the city’s western suburbs. Bored with collating the results of obscure sports events — local lacrosse, badminton and royal tennis — Drewe walked the streets looking for news. Every day for a month he caught a bus into the suburbs, picked a street, knocked on a door and asked a bemused householder for a story.
In the 50 years since that time Drewe has written six novels, three memoirs and two plays. The publication of The Bodysurfers (1983) — an Australian classic still in print after three decades — and two further collections also established him as a master of the short story. With this new book, The Local Wildlife, the former newspaper reporter has gone back to the streets in search of stories, but this time on the far north coast of NSW.
The Local Wildlife is a collection of 61 sketches based on people and places — and flora and fauna — in the Northern Rivers region where Drewe now lives. Some of the pieces — Drewe refers to them variously as sketches, tales and anecdotes — were published initially in newspapers and magazines. But that’s not to say they are offcuts swept from a craftsman’s floor. This is a fully realised book and a riot to read.
There is a freedom available to Drewe here that would not be available in fiction. While borrowing heavily from the short story and the devices of fiction, the anecdotal form allows Drewe to loosen his plotlines and express his personality directly to the reader. Drewe exploits this freedom to great effect. He writes about snakes, birds, dogs and angry neighbours — even about a two-headed crocodile — and relies on the force of his personality as a writer to hold it all together.
He is great company in these pages. The book’s tone is warm and conversational, and Drewe remains open to the wide (and often weird) variety of experiences available in the region. He visits the local rodeo and the municipal pool; he goes to parties and book club meetings; he learns facts about the dung beetle and cane toad. When a neighbour’s alpaca is killed, Drewe’s 16-year-old dog stands accused — despite the fact she is so old she can hardly stand up.
There are beautifully rendered images. At one point a body of water is described as ‘‘ dark as a blood test’’. Green capsicums washed up mysteriously on a beach are not much more than ‘‘ air with a glossy jacket’’. Elsewhere, a boy swimming at the pool has lightly freckled skin ‘‘ like fly-spots on a windowsill’’.
In his best work Drewe summons complex worlds from simple incidents. He can do this with very few words. Sometimes two sentences are enough. Black Lake is one of the early pieces from The Local Wildlife. It begins: A young woman with a badly scarred face and a baby began chatting to me down at Lake Ainsworth after I spotted a tree snake climbing into her picnic basket. She threw one of her thongs at the snake and it escaped up the nearest tea-tree, and we started talking.
Nothing could be simpler. A man and a woman are drawn into conversation by an incident with a curious tree snake. But why is this woman’s face scarred? Why is she alone with her baby? These details summon a dark world beneath the water’s still surface.
Most of these sketches stand alone, but there are some running narratives that link several tales. There is an amusing commentary on a dispute between residents that began when Butch, a neighbourhood dog, attacked an elderly canine, Splodge. There are also tales about Brendan, a macadamia farmer who finds love with the help of the internet and lots of luck. Drewe watches these events with an eager eye, often from the pub. But in setting them down he carefully avoids judgment.
Drewe’s attitude towards the people he meets is always generous. Dropping in at his friend Trevor’s nut farm, he falls into conversation with Destiny, Trevor’s partner. She is also a ‘‘ spiritual-growth practitioner’’ who ‘‘ balances negative energies for a living’’. Empathy and bliss, we read, are Destiny’s specialties. On receiving a baffling account of this type of work, Drewe writes: ‘‘ Much of this went over my ignorant pragmatic head. But I don’t mock empathy and bliss, I’m in favour of them, and I told Destiny so.’’ This rings true. Drewe is willing to listen to people and get genuinely interested in their lives.
Drewe’s month-long door-knocking mission in Perth’s western suburbs in the early 1960s uncovered only two stories. One was about a labrador released from the dog pound and saved from death. The other was about an elderly primary school cleaner who took over coaching duties for the girls’ softball team. Drewe wrote in The Shark Net that this was pretty poor stuff, even for a cadet journalist very new to the job.
But he has been wildly successful with the Northern Rivers locals. Indeed, by keeping his eyes and ears open he has shown the best stories often turn up when you’re not looking for them. The Local Wildlife is a book made from the basic materials of daily life. It shows Drewe knows his craft well enough to turn whatever he sees and hears into great stories that grab the reader’s shirtsleeves.